Thursday, 30 May 2013

Wish you were here?

I'm still at UCU Congress in Brighton. I keep getting texts asking me if I've been to this or that tourist attraction, restaurant or beach.

The answer to all of the above is 'no'. It's very much not like this:

Even though my hotel is on the sea front. I don't even have an external window: mine looks out to the lobby. And the conference venue has no windows either. I could not tell you what the weather has been like today.

So what do we do all day? Well, I've done a lot of marking, and I've been alternately bored, angry and frustrated. Some of this is good. I went to the anti-casualisation meeting, for instance. I knew the situation was bad, but not this bad. Students should be outraged that so many of their teachers are on hourly-paid and zero-hours contracts. I did it myself for 6 years, in seven different departments. The teaching was fun but the students were short-changed to some extent. I was expected to be an expert but I was only paid for the hours in the classroom. No holiday pay or sickness pay. I would often wait 6 months to get paid £300, surviving in the meantime on a huge overdraft and family bail-outs.

Casual staff are expected to be as good as their salaried colleagues, and as learned, but they only get paid for a few months of the year, which seems utterly dishonest to me. One of my colleagues teaches more than any of the full-time staff. She also works at another university 60 miles away, on another crappy contract. She has published multiple papers and a book, which the other university wants to claim for their REF submission, despite not helping her do that research at all. We have a policy of fractionalising contracts to regularise long-term visiting lecturers, but it appears to have been abandoned. We'd rather just exploit the skills and hard work of such people like parasites.

Apart from anything else, it seems short-sighted and self-defeating of the university system. All that time and money spent producing highly-qualified intellectuals who we then abandon or treat like dirt. And yet we've all accepted it as a rite of passage. Except that it isn't: I heard from someone today who has been on casual contracts since 1973. Two years before I was born. This is one of the dirty secrets of the global education system: it wouldn't run without the systematic exploitation of insecure, often young workers. I believe it's called 'McDonaldization'.

So meeting other people to plan how to resist this kind of rubbish is great. What's not so great is spending hours on motions nobody in their right mind would oppose ('Comrades: it's our duty as Trades Unionists to condemn cruelty to kittens'), and the even longer hours spent either (depending on your perspective) as HQ plotting against the rank and file or the rank and file plotting against HQ. There are also plenty of people with whom I agree on principle, but who spend the time making grand speeches that get us absolutely nowhere, or angling for cheap applause.

Ah well. It's the formal dinner tonight. I think I'll skip the 'disco', on the basis that I'd rather not dance to anyone who thinks a disco is still a thing. I accidentally bought some more books from the conference stall, so I might settle down with some Badiou or Baudrillard. Or some other French philosopher whose name starts with B. And of course there's marking to be done… I'll always have the marking.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Not so Little Britten

Hi everybody. I'm in a darkened conference room in Brighton, attending the annual conference of my union, UCU. Being academics or academic-related, we call it Congress because we're posh. Or perhaps because some lonely teachers are hoping to engage in some horizontal Congress…

Brighton looks lovely: the road from the station runs directly downhill to the sea, so the jaded pedestrian heads towards a patch of deep blue which comes to dominate the horizon, before reaching the seafront and an expanse of the briny stuff. The town's a mix of chi-chi style (sorry to ruin it everybody) and agreeably seedy murk. All very reminiscent of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock and Julie Burchill's gloriously tacky Sugar Rush.

Congress itself is a bizarre mix of the serious-minded, the political grandstanders and an academic support group. The SWP, behaving as if they aren't a bunch of rape apologists who should be ashamed of themselves, ring the building, though there's a disappointing absence of most of the other left groups (not that I think the SWP is left anymore). There's students' union style shenanigans with motions and composite motions and amendments of course, lots of freebies and all sorts of fringe events. I just went to one on excessive workload. Ironically, I couldn't give it my full attention because I'm marking essays and reading an MA dissertation at the same time.

However, before I dive headlong into UCU life as one of Mr Gove's 'Blob' and a 'Marxist Enemy of Promise' (I now have a badge), I wanted to prolong last night's joy and sadness a little longer. I went to Birmingham's Symphony Hall for a performance of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem. Conducted by Andris Nelsons and performed by the CBSO, CBSO Chorus, CBSO Youth Choir (hidden away to tremendous effect) and soloists Erin Wall, Mark Padmore and Hanno Müller-Brachmann, it was a performance I'm never going to forget.

I'm not a huge Britten fan – mostly from ignorance, I confess: I love the more experimental work of Vaughan Williams, Turnage, Maxwell-Davies and the Wilsons, and all sorts of other modern(ist) British composers, but other than Peter Grimes, I don't know too much Britten. Now my eyes (and ears) have been opened. The War Requiem, composed for the opening of Coventry Cathedral in 1962,  is just astonishing. Britten being a gay lefty, I was expecting great things rather than the usual propagandist nationalist nonsense, and I was more than provided for. It's structured for a mini chamber orchestra, a full orchestra, a huge choir, 3 soloists, a children's choir, organ and piano. The text is split between the Latin text of a Requiem Mass and various excerpts from the kind of war poetry governments dislike. There's no bombast or jingoism here: it's an excoriating, heartbreaking attack on the political systems which lead to mass slaughter. It's angry, sad and relentlessly serious. The sound reflects the sentiment: there's little respite, although there are moments of utter beauty. This isn't music designed to legitimise destruction and murder, to tidy it up and place war beyond politics and debate: it's a lament for the waste and inhumanity. I can easily understand why Shostakovich listened to the Requiem obsessively and pressed it on all his friends.

As to the CBSO's performance - they and the conductor Andris Nelsons proved yet again why they're one of the best ensembles in the world at the moment. This difficult, complex music wasn't just performed technically well: the dynamics and the emotional effects were perfect. The children's choir was disturbing and ethereal and the largely amateur CBSO Chorus wrung every ounce of suffering and desolation from their parts. For me, the test of a good choir isn't power and volume: it's the ability to maintain beauty, diction and control in the quietest passages. The Requiem demanded total control and the Chorus demonstrated once again just how amazing they are.

At the end of the 88 minutes, performed without an interval (thankfully), the audience was stunned into silence. I've never heard such a long, profound silence after the baton went down. I was moved to tears, both by the subject matter and the performance and I think others were too. Nelsons stood there, slumped, exhausted and spent, until finally he exchanged weary, emotional hugs with the singers - they'd been through the emotional wringer and the event transcended the usual very British reserve seen on platforms.

Here's the whole thing, not by the CBSO (you can buy their DVD though). It's one of the most profound, moving experiences you might ever have. Take some time to listen to it.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Choo-Choose Life

Hi everybody. How was your bank holiday weekend, if you're in a country that had one? I spent Saturday and Sunday marking essays. Saturday was fine – a big pile of good work. Sunday was harder: some plagiarism and a lower standard in general. I managed to get 50 done, so I had Monday off to go walking in Consall Woods: a nature reserve, good hills and valleys, a canal and a steam train line. I even got sunburned (it's that pale Irish bog-trotting skin: I evolved to be waterproof, carrying the turf home to cook the family potato, not for global warming – ironically caused by my ancestors draining bogs and burning the peat).

I took a lot of pictures but won't have time to edit them until I come back. But here are a couple.

Sadly this isn't how I'm getting to Brighton

Bluebells, Red Campion and all sorts of other wild flowers were out in force, but I discovered a field of bluebells off the track

So here I am. 50 more essays to do and I'm away at the UCU annual congress from 7 a.m. tomorrow. On the plus side, it's in Brighton. On the minus, I'll be marking rather than taking advantage of Brighton's joys. And at £10 per day for internet access at the hotel, I don't think I'll be blogging much either. Perhaps it'll be a good opportunity to recover my sanity.  Although perhaps not: last year Congress voted to abolish capitalism and to object to street lighting reductions somewhere down south. Now I'm all in favour of abolishing capitalism, but I cannot for the life of me work out how voting for it at a small trades union's meeting is actually going to do anything. Nor do I think a national education union's congress is the right forum for objecting to street lighting changes. Write to your local council!

Still, I can add to my extensive collection of leftwing sectarian groups' newspapers. It's not so much one paper for each groupuscule, it's one for each member. Which makes at least 40 newspapers. Why they aren't all blogging instead, I don't know. It's warm and dry in here.

Friday, 24 May 2013


I return from a partially terrifying and partially uplifting open meeting with the Vice-Chancellor to discover that I have been a) promoted and b) translated to an entirely new discipline. And that's not all: I'm already top of the class!
Dear Professor [VOLE] 
Re: INVITATION TO SPEAK - MEDXPO 2013 4-6 July Alexandra Palace - London - UK 
We recently tried contacting your office to offer you the opportunity of becoming a key-note speaker at the above Medical Conference and Exhibition in order to deliver a one hour paper on any speciality subject of your choice to like-minded professionals within the medical field - please note we do not charge for this opportunity. 
MEDXPO is the first major and prestigious international medical exhibition and congress ever to be held in the UK and is expected to attract in excess of 10,000 delegates and visitors.The International audience will consist of like-minded professioal and medical practitioners and other key-note speakers which to date include Sir Peter Mansfield, Dr Will Loh, Dr Jay H Sanders, Prof Christopher B-Lynch, Dr Ron Daniels, and Prof Ahmed Qassim Al-Ansi to name but a few.
I am very, very tempted to accept. It's free, it's in That London and I'd be hanging with my peers: a Nobel winner, a man who stops you dying of blood loss 'down there' after giving birth, and the Somali Minister for Public Health.

But no. Surely a major exhibition would have the resources to distinguish between a snarky lecturer in English and Media studies and the extremely distinguished physician of the same name at a completely different institution? But perhaps not.

Anyway, I'm convinced. As luck would have it, I'm flying out to Nigeria the day afterwards to meet some gentlemen who tell me they have Mr Gadaffi's nest egg and would like me to help them invest it. I can call in on my way to the airport.

Actually, I changed my mind and sent this reply:
Dear Anca,I'm sure that a major organisation such as yours should be able to work out which [Plashing Vole] to invite. I am a lecturer in Welsh literature. If you still want me, my fees are relatively modest compared with the delegate charges. Let me know.

And not only that, the debates are chaired by 'TV's Dr Dawn Harper'.

Who? I must confess that I had to look that up myself. But here she is.

She must be a great doctor. Cleavage and a white coat? And the order of priorities on her website make me think she must be at the top of her profession: Profile; Television; Medical Articles; Wardrobe. How does Dr Harper sorry, Dr Dawn make a crust?

Dr Dawn is a part time GP in Gloucestershire where she has a particular interest in women’s health, preventative medicine and weight management. The rest of her week is spent talking and writing in the media on medical issues.
Dr Dawn presents Channel 4′s most popular show Embarrassing Bodies, Embarrassing Bodies Live from the clinic and the BAFTA award winning website She is also a resident GP on ITV’s “This Morning”. She has appeared on numerous other television programmes; Channel 4 Paralympics Breakfast Show and a Paralympic Million Pound drop charity show other appearances include 10 o’clock Live, The Gadget Show and The Wright Stuff on Five, Sunrise on Sky, Looking Good Feeling Great & Today on ITV. 

I see. Alexander Fleming, previous Nobel winners and the heroes of public health must feel pretty damn small after reading that CV. Dr John Snow may have saved a lot of lives, but I bet he never poked someone in rectum for the amusement of the post-pub audience.

Anything else?
She also regularly presents medical corporate videos and is involved with health related PR activities and campaigns involving radio days and press briefings
Well of course she is.

But maybe I'm being mean to 'Dr Dawn'. Let's look at Medical Articles. Maybe the leading medical journals are crammed to the gunwales with learned published work forging new paths in health science.  And please note: it's not actually Medical Articles, it's
This is Dawns archive of published articles.
Definitely kosher despite the tragic loss of an apostrophe (coroner's report due soon). Published articles, just like the ones I have coming out shortly, peer-reviewed, footnoted up to the kidneys and open to the scrutiny of the experts. Yes?

Er… no. It turns out that Dawn's 'published articles' are 'articles' on 'Pins and Needles', 'Bruises', 'Dandruff', 'Puffy Eyes', 'Itchy Bottom' and a host of other threats to civilisation as we know it which are 'published' in exactly the same way as my dyspeptic rants are 'published'. I.e., on here, with no mediation between my walnut brain and your piggy eyes.

So, 'Dr Dawn', why does my bottom itch?
I have started getting a very itchy bottom, particularly around my anus. The itchiness is worse at night and it’s very sore when I go to the toilet. I’m too embarrassed to ask my doctor about it, can you help? 
I’m afraid top of my list of possible diagnoses would be that you have worms. The adult worms lay their eggs on the skin around the anus at night causing itching and as revolting as it sounds you are then probably passing eggs from under your fingernails into your mouth. You can break the cycle by bathing every morning paying particular attention to your anal area and being fastidious about hand washing and nail scrubbing before handling food and after every visit to the toilet. You can also buy a powder containing piperazine from the chemist which you take as a one off dose and repeat 14 days later.
That, by the way, is the entire 'published medical article'. We don't know who the patient is (surely it can't be fictional?) But it's pretty clear that if this is a 'published medical article', then I can submit this blog to the REF committee and expect my Regius Professorship of Poetry pretty darn soon.

Elsewhere she suggests that 'red vine leaf' may help your swollen ankles, and discloses the surprisingly accessible sources of her sartorial brand (mostly Coast, ladies).

But I'll finish by leaving you with some of Dr Dawn's own words, in case you feel like being sarcastic about her or taking any of her medical advice:

Liability for reliance of visitors on answers to medical questions
This website ( and Dr Dawn Harper’s Facebook an Twitter pages located at and (“the Sites”) are provided for information only and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking professional medical advice or receiving medical care by a qualified doctor or other health care professional. You should always consult with your doctor if you have any concerns about your condition or treatment as they will be trained in the observation and interpretation of symptoms and will be able to provide a proper diagnosis based on a knowledge and understanding of all aspects of your condition and your medical history. No warranties or representations are made as to the accuracy of the information that appears on the Sites. Any decision about your health or medical care based solely on information obtained from the web could be dangerous. Whilst we hope that you will find the sites linked to of interest, no responsibility of any nature whatsoever is accepted for any links to websites that appear on the Sites or any information contained in them. All users agree that all access and use of the Sites and the content that appears on them is at their own risk. Neither [Otter Medical Ltd] nor any party involved in creating, producing or delivering this website shall be liable for any direct, incidental, consequential, indirect or punitive damages arising out of access to, use (or misuse of) or inability to use this website, or any errors or omissions contained in it or accessible via it. No advice or information, whether oral or written, obtained by you from the Sites shall create any warranty or other obligation on our part and all implied warranties, conditions, terms, representations, statements, undertakings and obligations whether expressed or implied by statute, common law, custom, usage or are excluded to the fullest extent permitted under the law. 
Documents published by Otter Medical Ltd. on the World Wide Web may not be copied other than for non-commercial individual reference with all copyright or other proprietary notices retained, and thereafter may not be recopied, reproduced or otherwise redistributed.
Otter Medical Ltd will use reasonable efforts to include accurate and up-to-date information on this website, but Otter Medical Ltd makes no warranties or representations as to its accuracy. All users agree that all access and use of this website and the content thereof is at their own risk. Neither Otter Medical Ltd nor any party involved in creating, producing or delivering this website shall be liable for any direct, incidental, consequential, indirect or punitive damages arising out of access to, use of or inability to use this website, or any errors or omissions in the content thereof.

I think you'll find all the major research scientists talk like this.*

*This guarantee is not a guarantee. Guarantee void if read by anyone.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Be my friend?

Got the new album by The National today. It's pleasant enough - doesn't distract me from the dreaded marking – but not a lot more than that. Are they the Indie U2 these days?

Anyway, having got all that about discourse, capitalism and education off my flabby chest yesterday, today's question is: social media and students – yes or no? One of the meetings I attended yesterday discussed the university's proposed guidelines on using social media and pedagogy. For the most part, the guidelines are fine and practical.

However, what wasn't addressed was the wider context. Should a university be herding students into the arms of distant corporations who will wring them dry for marketable data? Is it equitable to make elements of teaching depend on platforms some students don't want to use? Who owns this information, do colleagues and students understand the privacy settings well enough? What if they want out, and what if they say something they shouldn't?

One of my colleagues ran a module which required students to blog about various taboo subjects: one came back a few years later and claimed that he'd lost a potential job because they'd Googled him and found him confessing to a minor crime. We told them not to boast about their nefarious deeds, but everyone makes mistakes. Was it his fault? Or our responsibility to delete such things?

I sometimes use Twitter in class. If the group is shy and silent, I'll give them a hashtag (such as the module code) and ask them to send me questions like that, promising not to follow them or look at their other Tweets. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Although a lot of students aren't on Twitter and it could be seen as exclusive, I tend to feel that such a use is additional – anyone not using the platform can simply speak in the class. But I wouldn't want to make anything dependent on an external platform – I want editorial control and to be sure that privacy settings haven't sneakily changed, or that the organisation hasn't gone bust. These things are ephemeral: the university spent a lot of time and effort on establishing a Second Life campus. Second Life? Perhaps you're too young. It was literally all the rage on Friday December 3rd 2003. Or something. Now it's tumbleweed. Facebook use is already declining…

It's hard for institutions to a) keep up and b) not seem like the creepy old man in the playground. We can't tell which sites 'the kids' are going to be using tomorrow, and if we go all-in to get down with the youth, they might find that intrusive – people are researching concepts of virtual space, and whether individuals consider them 'private' or 'public'. Do you want your teachers or the institution Tweeting you, or 'liking' your pub photos? I know I wouldn't. On the other hand, many students see e-mail as hopelessly passé and appreciate a Tweet when a class is cancelled or an assignment's due.

The fuzzier element is the issue of social capital, weak or strong. Say you follow your lecturer, or your lecturer follows you. There's an element of control with Facebook (apparently: I'm not on it, and I've ensured that the various platforms I do use are furnished only with dummy names and email addresses) but slippage is easy. Either party might be horrified to realise they've just announced that they're not in today because they're hungover rather than 'unwell'. I already get emails at 3 a.m.: do I want queries by Twitter at any time of day and night? Are there professional boundaries that shouldn't be crossed? I asked this via Twitter yesterday and got an interesting range of responses. Some people saw no problem: social media isn't 'real' friendship and can be seen as a more relaxed space. Others run institutional accounts like Bath Spa's English account, which is chatty and relaxed without over-sharing (my department is thinking of starting one, though the boss is rightly keen to avoid it being vacuous and self-promoting). Gloucestershire University also runs a decent, modest English Department blog. Others said that Facebook friendship is reserved for ex-students instead of current ones. One respondent said that she would friend or follow people she's comfortable getting drunk with, which struck me as both funny and quite wise. You get drunk with people who get your sense of humour and make allowances for context, whereas student-teacher relationships automatically come replete with power imbalances. Another Twitter friend put it like this:
Twitter I only follow peeps I am a fan of. On fb I only friend those I can say Fuck in front of. Rules out a lot of lecturers.
Social media = socialising. Some I want to socialise with others I don't and viceversa. Its not the place for officialdom. 
Some more responses from academics (students and teachers), anonymised:
Too messy; tho I don’t use FB as a personal space—too many “work” folks on there— & I don’t twitter follow current UGs
 Our students and the SU really appreciate @EnglishBSU - it's been cited as an exemplar of its kind (ahem!).
wayyyy more helpful than waiting two days for a reply to an email. Definitely useful. 
No. Former students maybe, but not current crop. Alters dynamics of relationship. 
I'm not, for work/life balance reasons. I'm not with current colleagues either. 
I think this is something that develops when lecturing. You need clearer boundaries.
I'll add students post teaching&colleagues that add me. Use it as a work tool not personal. I live in with students so boundaries v important 
I wouldn't want to be, and as a student still don't 'friend' faculty members/academics unless they 'friend' me. 
I'm generally horribly relaxed. Probably far too open. 
Not so long as you have responsibility for marking their work and pastoral care you shouldn't. Once graduated is different. 
I have student Twitter followers; I don't follow them back 
Think there's something about public nature of Twitter that mitigates the social media fail often seen on Facebook. 
current students? Absolutely not. Past students? Maybe. 
Definitely not Facebook. A few follow me on twitter; I do not follow current students but a few former students. 
My supervisor & I bcame Facebook 'friends' after I finished though & I think that was right. 
There are limits, but imposing them requires too much guardedness. Best for me to just keep them separate! 
I’ve found both twitter and blogging to be both helpful and productive.
For me, it's about duty of care - if I have that, I have a responsibility to be professional. 
Being able to unwind and vent in a safe space for *us* matters. 
It's definitely useful, but only with staff who want to be out there. It certainly wouldn't work if it were forced. 
As I have added collegues, FB has become less personal for me. Thankfully I have other spaces. 
I would (and do) add colleagues that I have a friendship with - i.e. are not just colleagues. 
Good question... I think it depends whether they are compelled to have more contact than is purposeful. (Creepy treehouse.) 

(Further reading: and the "Creepy Treehouse" article which I found very useful. But this is a fascinating spread of approaches. We've never had so many opportunities to communicate with/mock/spy on our students and for them to do the same with us. The boundaries are very fuzzy and we're just feeling our way towards a useful working practice.

What do I do? Well, a few students follow me and I follow them back, but the vast majority do so after graduation and I really value the network that's evolved from that. Most are fairly discreet and I never, ever reply to or reference anything I think they might blush at if they realised I'd read it. I also keep my real name off the account and don't use it for professional work: better for me, better for the university. Nor do I share personal information about me, though I do quote terrible essays sometimes, which I'm beginning to feel bad about. Certainly my instincts are changing all the time.

I'd really like your comments on this.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Going Forward?

Good afternoon everybody.

I've spent the day in meetings. Lots of meetings. Mostly meetings about the student experience (I suspect that should be plural) and the recent staff survey's exposure of how my colleagues feel about life in this institution.

Lots of what we talked about was very positive, thoughtful and interesting. However, I found myself listening very carefully to the language deployed by various groups. It became clear quite quickly that there were two language communities in the rooms, representing two different cultures. I'm reluctant to give the groups names because one or both would sound pejorative, even though everyone there was present to contribute seriously.

However, one group talked about students, and teachers, and admin staff and how they experienced the university. The other group talked about outcomes, and KPIs and descriptors: you know the kind of thing. I want to stress that I'm not attacking the individuals. But: it is part of a general discursive turn which indicates major cultural and ideological shifts. I'm going to lift some ideas from Ben Knights's forthcoming chapter on 'The Politics of Enhancement' (thanks to him for sending me his work), allied to my reading of Norman Fairclough's New Labour, New Language, and my experience of the Postgraduate Certificate in Further and Higher Education.

Look out for Ben and his colleagues' work in The Politics of Literature and the Literature of Politics edited by Deborah Philips and Katy Shaw (Palgrave, forthcoming).

In the beginning, there were students and their teachers. Many of the teachers were expert researchers and very few were qualified teachers. The classroom experience was largely unexamined, and university lecturers didn't pay much attention to the origins and experiences of their students. We did, of course, just not in a systematic way. There were some pedagogy researchers, but they didn't impinge on the rest of us very much. So in English, for example, we had lectures, followed by seminars. Students were tested in exams or through essays. It was assumed that 'good' students read books, turned up, listened, thought and handed in their work. 'Bad' students did some or none of those things. Their problem. But gradually, we got a bit more sophisticated. Devised more varied ways to talk about and investigate books. More searching or purposeful assessments tailored to the kinds of students previously just considered 'bad'. This was called 'student-centred learning' and it was definitely a Good Thing (and a product of the New Left's democratic impulses). Apart from anything else, there were plenty of limited, or lazy, or floundering teachers out there, while students' views often went unconsidered. Students, like teachers, are weird. They have all sorts of different starting points, cultures, beliefs, behaviours etc. which affect what and how they learn. In English, this is easy: we know all about the Death of the Author, about Reader-Response Theory and the generation of multiple meanings within the reader's current context.

Meanwhile, something called New Public Management started to infect business, politics and public services. It seemed to hold that if something couldn't be represented on a spreadsheet, graph or by the deployment of buzzwords (employability; flexibility; solutions; going forward; customer-centred), it wasn't worth doing. Studying English (Icelandic, quantum physics, whatever) couldn't be just A Good Thing. It had to be a Quantifiable Good Thing. Similarly, the process of mastering any of these things had to be quantifiable. Suddenly teachers had bumper stickers: 'How's My Pedagogy?'

Quantifying enjoyment (click to enlarge)
It's hard to avoid being sucked in to the discourse, although you can resist:

What the resulting spreadsheets couldn't measure was the messy, glorious, unquantifiable nature of true education: everything else is just training. As I say to my students: a successful class is when you leave the room and the world has slightly changed. If you don't feel your head has been messed with, either you haven't been listening or I'm failing you.

There's no room for this subversive nonsense in the New Public Management world. Instead, there's a Maoist process of permanent revolution. This is reflected in the language: if you aren't Going Forward with Vision on a Mission, then you're a Curator of the Past, as a colleague was told. Thinking Outside The Box doesn't mean what you think it means: it actually means conforming to the elite managerialists' discourse, rather than critiquing it. The result of the Spreadsheet Model of pedagogy is that the students are extruded from a sausage machine. They have a certificate. They can use Powerpoint. They can write a CV and turn up to work on time. Can they tell you what a postmodern reading of your company's activity might be? Or what Little Pip would say about working in the photocopying room? Maybe, but that's not what employers and the Spreadsheet Cadre want. 'Deep knowledge' is far less important in a market economy than the superficial skills required to join a low-wage, disempowered workforce.

Even worse: those of us who passionately care about our subjects (why else would we be here?) and think that they're inherently beneficial get dismissed as the reactionaries. Which is wrong. A student who graduates equipped for an unfulfilling job furthering the malevolent ends of a rotten system isn't empowered. Instead, we've set them up for exploitation. Whereas one transformed by cellular biology, French Lesbian Poetry (which that idiot James Dyson snidely blamed for Britain's Decline) is already a winner, whether they draw on those specific things ever again or not.

Which is wrong. If business wants identikit drones who'll agree with everything, business will get them. But business won't last very long. What you need to succeed is wit, style, contrariness and intellect, tied with a willingness to stand up to those who want a predictable life: none of which qualities show up on a spreadsheet. All this talk of visions and missions is deceptive. What's wanted by the managerialists (note that I'm not saying 'managers', because there's a difference) is people who can be controlled and kept at arms length from power. If you can't speak the lingo, you don't get to play. This is why I wonder whether those fluent in Bullshit are not bullies but cowards. Individually, they may not know what all this stuff means, but they know that if they don't speak it, they'll be out. Even worse, they might be asked to explain what they mean by pesky people like us.

Rather than being empowering, the discourse of NPM is profoundly disempowering, rendering discussion about education impossible outwith the paradigm of individualistic, atomised consumer capitalism. As Knights points out, New Labour and the Tories are as one on this: 'managerial populism' (which includes treating students as customers) isn't liberating, it's a means of enforcing control down to the slightest detail, 'replacing a culture of trust with one of contract': no space for serendipity educational weirdness there! My immediate managers and my students are largely resistant to this rubbish, but their instincts are at odds with the structure. The culture of measurable learning outcomes, satisfaction surveys and the like encourage us all to view education as a quantifiable and portable personal good, like an iPod, with a discrete outcome (a certificate).

Conversely, according to Knights, lecturers are encouraged to withdraw all the off-balance-sheet effort we actually put in. Why stay late (as I do most nights, getting regularly locked in the building), put on an extra tutorial, go and sit with students at lunchtime to talk about the books a bit longer, attend their bands' gigs and all the other things we do for fun if none of this shows up on a Workload Allocation Form? Instead the culture of audit makes us feel exploited and under surveillance. On my deathbed, I won't breathe my last satisfied that my students' grade averages increased by 2.7%. I'll be pleased to hear that they're picky, critical readers, lovers, parents, teachers, colleagues, guerrillas and rulers. Find that on a spreadsheet!

I'm not saying that university lecturers are a special breed who should do whatever we feel like behind closed doors. But we should be free to share our abilities with each other, to educate each other, to learn from other teachers' ideas and practices, on an egalitarian basis (which is how the old Subject Centres worked: now abolished). Look at school-teachers. League table culture leads many of them to cut corners or produce students who (and I'm not joking) have never read in full the books they studied at A-level. Schools, and students, have been ruined by a culture of cynical results-driven pseudo-education. We inherit students who think that 'key chapters' can be used to extract 'the message' of any given text. My job in part is to teach them to read again: slowly, thoughtfully and critically. Turning students into customers doesn't 'empower' them: it demeans them and implies that they are the passive recipients of our 'product', rather than travellers on a quest.

A spreadsheet culture in universities will lead to teachers and students collaborating to game the system: short-term statistical success quickly followed by national, cultural and economic failure as we realise that certificates do not = education. Teachers will be pressured to 'produce results' or lose their jobs, and we'll end up as the last 'quick civil servants' to be enfolded into the capitalist embrace. Subject deemed 'inflexible' or not contributing to 'transferable skills' will be dumped unceremoniously.

Except, of course, in the kinds of universities our rulers attend. You know that, don't you? The discipline of the market is only applied to the poor. Northern Scum surely don't have any use for Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic. Whereas the children of the élite have the delicacy of mind required. They'll find work whatever they do. The Russell Group universities even proposed to the Quality Assurance Agency that they don't need inspection because they're Good Chaps - only us oiks because it's our job to cope with the unwashed masses. It's Transferable Skills for the future photocopier salesmen of the world, Medieval Philology for the nobs who seem to find cosy Ministerial positions administering government departments without ever worrying about their transferable skills or knowing anything about their field. When was the last time the Department of Health was led by a doctor? Which is a shame, because there are many potential Medieval Philologists in my classes and on the streets of the Dark Place.

I'm sorry that this has turned into another classic unfocussed, rambling Vole Rant. I'll end with Ben Knights's fine words. Buy his book when it comes out:
…while tribal narcissism is self-evidently a bad thing, in the current historical moment there is a pressing need to defend the social and institutional bases that make critical dialogue possible. In short, we cannot afford to join in running down or de-skilling any community that preserves the seeds of knowing, thinking and behaving differently. 
Update: got an email from management today, asking why staff don't believe that 'the university offers quality service to its customers'. 'FFS', as I believe the kids say these days.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

I For One Welcome Our Lesbian Queen

The Conservative Party is tearing itself apart over the mere thought of GAYS today. In particular, Sir Gerald Howarth – whose background is in the arms trade – is inexplicably scared of 'aggressive homosexuals' emboldened by the legal right to marry and spend the rest of their lives wandering despairingly round IKEA sniping at each other, while Norman Tebbit is worried about LESBIAN QUEENS:

“When we have a queen who is a lesbian and she marries another lady and then decides she would like to have a child and someone donates sperm and she gives birth to a child, is that child heir to the throne?’
“It’s like one of my colleagues said: we’ve got to make these same sex marriages available to all.
“It would lift my worries about inheritance tax because maybe I’d be allowed to marry my son. Why not? Why shouldn’t a mother marry her daughter? Why shouldn’t two elderly sisters living together marry each other?”

What would these lesbian queens be like? Well, I don't know if Wonder Woman is officially a lesbian, but she is the queen of an all-female society. Despite her love for impractical clothing made of nasty artificial fibres, I reckon we could all thrive under her enlightened rule:

I'm torn between despair for a country which seems to think that the only problem with the Tory Party's bigotry is that it doesn't hate Europe strongly enough, and hilarity. Cameron's aristocratic Conservatism has come slap bang up against a more visceral, less cosmopolitan one and he clearly has no idea what to do. A while back I wrote about UKIP's fore-runners in various countries: the Poujadists, the Know-Nothings and the Ham and Eggs movements. While reading Starr's excellent Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California, I came across the Townsendites. This mass movement was populist, appealed to poor pensioners by campaigning for decent pensions as a way to kickstart the economy, and tended to be anti-semitic. They were exactly the electorate UKIP is stealing from the Tories:
Urban ethnic blue-collar workers, even farm workers, might go left towards militant trade unionism, Socialism, even the Communist Party. The middle and lower-middle classes, by contrast, would move right. While industrial or agricultural workers felt permanently outside the system, excluded as a matter of enduring socio-economic structure, the middle to lower-middle classes, having once felt themselves to be on the inside, mainstream, then cynically ejected – by Wall Street, by the Ivy League patricians around Roosevelt, by international Jewry – felt betrayed and eager for retribution. Such resentment by the dutiful and the God-fearing, made to feel victims of their social superiors… feeling cheated by the very system they had devoted their lives to, had all the makings of a para-fascist crusade. 
And so it turned out: the police and the army turned machine guns on striking workers while helping vigilante groups allied to the Townsendites smash workers, unions and minorities across California and the US.

The parallels are striking. UKIP's supporters aren't the very poor: they're the Sun and Mail-reading classes. They resent an Etonian Prime Minister not listening to their reactionary 'common-sense' beliefs on everything from Europe to homosexuality. They're no longer very anti-semitic: just put 'Muslims' or 'immigrants' where the Townsendites talked of Jews. They do distrust international capital - although Farage made millions from currency speculation. Interestingly, Townsend was a hypocrite too: he made a lot of money from whipping up his campaigns, mostly through secretly selling ads in his publicity material.

The Townsendites fell apart fairly quickly, though some of the did end up in the Ham and Eggs movement. What will happen to UKIP once the burdens of office and campaigning start to take off the shine?

Monday, 20 May 2013

My library / was Dukedom large enough

As you can tell from the title of this post, I saw The Tempest this weekend, at the Globe Theatre in London. The seating was hard and open to the air, props were minimal and the actors unaided by microphones. All very authentic, except for the distressing absence of jades, cutpurses, typhoid and the fragrance of Southwark in 1611.

Actually, the performance was rather wonderful. Prospero was wryly played by Roger Allam (Peter Mannion in The Thick of It), Miranda by Irish newcomer Jessie Buckley, Caliban by James Garnon and Ariel by the star of Merlin, Colin Morgan. They were superb, as were the supporting cast. Having taught The Tempest for several years, this production really demonstrated its dramatic qualities in surprising ways. In particular, the jokes worked, which is hard to pull off given the cultural gulf between then and now. Lots of physical humour (especially with codpieces), and a lusty version of Miranda. I hope the students on the trip enjoyed it - they seemed in high spirits anyway. I also got to meet one of my Twitter contacts in the flesh, which was lovely!

I did wonder about the Globe as a theatrical experience. Like going to performances of music on 'authentic' period instruments, I was wary of the possibility of experiencing it solely as a touristic curiosity - like going to a Sealed Knot Civil War re-enactment. You know - thrill to the rain and the smells and the backache and audience in the pit being sprayed by the actors - rather than experiencing the play for its intrinsic worth. And for the first few minutes I did watch the audience and admire the architecture and all that stuff, but the characteristics of this particular production soon took over and the experience rapidly became 'real' rather than an exercise in retro nostalgia.

I paid for the day's pleasure by spending yesterday marking dissertations. I seem to have hit a bad patch: a few unresearched, semi-literate, speculative ones. I now intend to automatically ban any thesis which claims to know what 'everyone' knows or does. As we keep telling the little darlings, 'the more sweeping the statement, the less likely it is to be true'. Statements like 'everybody knows' should be but into the same box as those starting with 'I'm not racist but…', which as we all know, actually means 'I AM a racist and…'.

I'm also sick of seeing 'would/could of', assertions that The Sun is a peer-reviewed journal, and dissertations which claim to analyse things using every single tool in the critical box. I've just read a thesis which claims to give a semiotic, Baudrillardian, Jamesonian and Bauman-influenced reading of 'the retro industry' (which 'everyone' is obsessed with, apparently). You wouldn't think they'd had an entire module on Research Methods…

Anyway, only 4 more dissertations. Then an MA thesis to read and 90 essays. All fitted round meetings. Wednesday: meetings at 10, 11, 12 and 2. And people wonder why I'm a grumpy red-faced blustering bully.

(And by the way, my library is languishing. Down to 2 additional books per week. Trips to the post room aren't nearly so much fun as heretofore).

Friday, 17 May 2013

Male Models

Good morning everybody. I should of course be marking…

OK, one of the things that caught my eye this week was Diane Abbott MP's claim that masculinity is in crisis, in a speech to think-tank Demos. Her central points were that men are being failed by economic and cultural conditions, leading to damaged men and damaged relationships with and attitudes towards women.

At this point, I'm tempted to upload a copy of my PhD thesis, originally entitled '"There's something wrong with us blokes": Constructions of Masculinity in Four 1930s Welsh Novels In English", though the quote was cut for archiving purposes. I've also written a piece recently called '"The Male Shoutings of Men": Masculinity and Fascist Epistemology in How Green Was My Valley'.

Stakhanov, the USSR's productivity pin-up

Soviet hero-workers
The point of both these pieces is that they explicitly say that capitalism both constructs and destructs masculinity, particularly in periods of economic crisis. In the books I write about, masculinity is entirely constructed through manual labour, primarily mining. Physical strength, the ability to provide for one's family, the camaraderie of all-male labour, socialisation and trades union/political activity created a society and society in which women were publicly invisible and masculinity seemed awesomely powerful.

However, while mining provided comprehensible models of masculinity, it also destroyed individual men. The harder one worked, the more broken the miner's body became. The diseases associated with mining and other manual labour rapidly turned the hero-worker into a battered hulk if it didn't kill him outright in an accident. The ability to provide for one's family became subject to the law of diminishing returns.

Then there's the relationship between capitalism and labour. How humanising is the requirement to sell your body to a corporation anyway? Less abstractly, if your masculinity is tied up in work and wages, what happens when there is no work? In some areas of South Wales, unemployment reached 100% for long periods. Men used to work, to bringing home the bacon and earning the respect of their families were forced to depend on the state, charity and the resourcefulness of their wives. Some adapted admirably: others did not, with a rise in domestic violence, alcoholism, depression and despair.

In the books about which I write, these contradictions and tensions are writ large. My argument is that this crisis of masculinity lead in many cases to the adoption of extreme politics. In the case of Lewis Jones's Cwmardy and other left novels, Communism was a most attractive creed. Apart from its obvious critique of capitalism's obvious failures, it lionised (as these images indicated), the Super Man. The latest edition of the novel features another Soviet propaganda piece without - I think - any irony at all:

Detail from John Hastings' 1935 The Worker of the Future Disrupting the Economic Chaos of the Present, mural at the Marx Memorial Library, London (thanks to Cath Feely for this attribution).

However, there's a lot more to the gender politics of Cwmardy than most commentators acknowledge. Firstly, the proto-feminism of Communist women is both admired and feared: Len's partner Mary loses humanity as she becomes an activist, culminating in her sending Len to his death in the Spanish Civil War. Len's father is the classic victim of capitalist masculinity. He's called Big Jim. He's a miner, a fighter, a soldier and a lover: yet all these things are taken away from him as the effects of a career below ground wreck his body and unemployment humbles him. Len is a classic failure of hegemonic capitalistic masculinity. He's thoughtful, depressive, sexually timid and physically weak. Unfitted for manual work and too shy for boisterous bouts of heavy drinking and singing, he eventually finds a solution in the arms of Communism, which dissolves individualism in another ideology of mass masculinity: solidarity with ones brothers and sister. Sadly, it's not enough to soothe Len's oddnesses, and accepting death in Spain (another, militaristic version of masculinity) is his solution. 

In another leftwing novel, Gwyn Thomas's Sorrow for thy Sons, three brothers are faced with twin crises of masculinity and capitalism. Herbert the shopkeeper opts to mimic middle-class feminised prissiness, yet it's clear that he's faking it and that economic change will destroy him. Alf – a miner until the mine closes – becomes a socially disruptive force, locked in battle with a corrupt female charity worker and sexually exploiting a woman with severe learning difficulties: without old or new versions of socially responsible masculinity (though the Party offers some hope), his masculine aggression becomes dangerous. The third brother, Hugh, educated out of his class, is aware that this is how hegemony works: his response is to refuse escape and to conduct affairs with the wives of capitalism's managerial class as a form of revenge. 

On the other side of the political divide, Fascism also valorised extreme forms of masculinity. While Communism was pro-feminist to some extent, Fascism required the separation of male and female spheres. Men were fighters, en masse and outside. Women belonged in the home. In Welsh literature, How Green Was My Valley opts for a Welsh Fascism with distinctly Nazi overtones as a solution to masculine and cultural decay. Mining is wrecked by the workers, seen as 'lice', 'pigs', 'monkeys' and 'dogs', subverted by Marxist agitators: there's no serious economic analysis. The hero, Huw, relocates masculinity in individual craft labour, chivalry, resistance to cultural and physical decay - fairly standard stuff. But then one day he gets his first erection, and life is very different. Sex with women is dangerous to him: 'soft', curvy, rounded women are a trap: young women in the novel are essentially whores (Ceinwen) or symbolic of Welsh cultural ruination, doomed to an early death. It's not sex that makes Huw a man - it's the masculine power that comes from puberty. Huw starts having visions, mostly modelled on Nazi art and rallies: men in armour, carrying flaming torches. He learns from these visions that 'real' men aren't miners, don't join unions. Real men are militaristic leaders, scourges of Jews, bankers, half-breeds, socialists and proletarians. Real men must be higher up and separate, looking down on the rabble from the mountains. 

It's easy to see the roots of fascism in male crisis, but we need to stress that the origins of all masculine failure are in capitalism. Masculinity in a capitalist system is about performing particular roles: worker and consumer. The same might be said of femininity: both concepts are constructed in particular ways to serve the needs of capitalism. But in the post-industrial condition in which Britain finds itself (read Christopher Meredith's Shifts), the male crisis is most pressing because working-class men have moved from mass employment to mass unemployment, or from manual labour to service industry and consumerism. There's no doubt that male mass society damaged men, women and relations between the sexes, but it provided some form of agency to men. 

Now, the children of miners and steelworkers are marooned. Many haven't adapted to the emancipation of women, and they're not helped by – as Abbott points out – capitalism's relentless objectification of the female body as a sales ploy. From Fairy Liquid ads which constantly portray women as house-bound, voluntary domestic slaves to popular culture's obsessive presentation of women as willing, available, compulsorily heterosexual unpaid prostitutes, men have no space in which to develop a secure, open, stable and progressive masculinity. The result is teenagers texting each other pictures of their female classmates in degrading sexual poses, widespread homophobia, emotional damage, failed family structures, violent crime and paranoid defensiveness. 

I don't think there ever was a golden age of masculine security, nor that there's a potential fixed form of masculinity that would suit everyone, for ever. Nor do I think that abolishing capitalism will solve all our problems in one fell swoop: all economic and ideological structures deform the individual, as Len finds in Cwmardy (something the novel's Stalinist fans do their best to ignore). Culture is hard to shake off, too. 

Abbott says that markets produce

  • A generation of British men without realistic heroes, who feel like they have been set up to fail.
  • A ‘we’ve got nothing left to lose’ generation of British men.
  • A nation of atomised, lonely, entrepreneurial boys, who often have lives without meaning.
  • A society where British manhood is now shaped more by market expectations – often unachievable ones - than by fathers, family values, a sense of community spirit and perseverance.
  • I believe we need to say loudly and clearly, that there is a powerful role for fathers. The truth is that just as loving fathers are a benefit to children, so loving families are a benefit to men.
I don't disagree. Men suffer under consumer capitalism just as women do, and often make things worse for themselves and women. I don't share her belief that there was or must have been a nice society formed by happy families in stable communities in which Daddy is strong and emotionally resilient (reading social history or discovering the sexual horrors of this and previous ages dispels this), but I think her analysis of the current problems are supported by cultural analysis. She carefully doesn't blame families or feral kids or whatever: we have a structural problem, which is something the Tories don't talk about. If you engineer mass unemployment, or a low-wage economy (I'm looking at you, too, New Labour), or demand that people leave London because housing benefit won't cover the costs, thus separating families from their communities, extended network of relations etc, then you get unfocussed anger and social decay.

Imagine being 20, male or female, unemployed and suddenly being dumped in Stoke. All your friends and family are in London. You have no social circle. No prospect of employment. Hostility from your new neighbours who are struggling themselves, and from the authorities who blame your unemployment on idleness rather than a national crisis. Result? You spend your time killing prostitutes on your X-Box, take up drink and drugs, and engage in antisocial behaviour. There's no chance of education, you can't find capital for your business ideas, you don't have a union or older role models: you're Alf of Sorrow for thy Sons and you're going to hurt yourself and those around you. You may become a parent but the odds are against you being a decent role model, however good your intentions. Without the opportunity to engage in the positive aspects of masculinity and femininity, people develop hyper-real versions of these things: with men, it's often violence and the sexual degradation of women. Or as Abbott puts it:
I’m particularly troubled by a culture of hyper-masculinity – a culture that exaggerates masculinity in the face of a perceived threat to it. We see it in our schools; in the culture of some of our big business financial institutions; in some of our in inner cities; and even on many student campuses. At its worst, it’s a celebration of heartlessness; a lack of respect for women’s autonomy; and the normalisation of homophobia. I fear it’s often crude individualism dressed up as modern manhood. 

Decent, fulfilling work may help men. Marx wavered between the Dignity of Labour and a vision of the Communist Future in which a small amount of work subsidised a life of leisure and intellectual fulfilment, but it's fairly clear that decent work is psychologically beneficial - and yet capitalism relies on reducing men and women to drones, and keeping a reserve army of desperate unemployed people on hand to depress wages and frighten the rest of us into obedience.  

What of women? Abbott talks, rightly I think, of porn culture's infection of everyday socialisation. Young, working-class and often highly-educated women have been persuaded that even the most degrading sexual activities and attitudes are 'empowering' – you may recall that I recently wrote about teaching Jilly Cooper's Riders and the way it depicts fellatio as a sexual adventure for women rather than one-way gratification of the abusive and cruel men in their lives. Porn is mainstream and it teaches men that their sexuality depends on progressively more demeaning use of women, rather than mutual pleasure. Fifty Shades of Grey is symptomatic of this: it presents female submission as somehow empowering, while uncritically idolising unearned capitalist success: Christian Grey is where sexual and economic violence come together (no pun intended). 

Abbott's solutions are clear and OK: better transmission between the generations of positive, emotionally-open masculinity. Stable, fulfilling work, and state provision of health and psychological services. But we need to go further. Banning porn or exploitative games or whatever aren't solutions: we need to end a culture which benefits from the consumption of goods which promote atomisation and antagonism. 

And that means ending capitalism as an economic structure and as a cultural condition. My 1930s Welsh authors knew this (well, the leftwing ones did). And now you do too. 

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

What do we want? More lectures?

Another day, another survey pointing out that students are getting barely more time in lectures, weakly tied in with unexamined claims that a) they want more b) this is a disgrace given the fees charged and b) this is a good thing.


The easy bit first. You students are paying a lot more for your education. BUT: universities aren't getting any more money under the fees system. Some are getting a lot less. The government has stopped paying universities the shortfall between the lower fees and the real cost of running institutions. You pay the lot now. So you're paying more and we're getting the same or less. As you can imagine, that doesn't help staffing levels, infrastructure updates etc. It just puts consumer pressure on us.

I can see why lots of supervised class time is essential in medicine, pharmacy, engineering etc. After all, I spent my time in metalwork classes making weapons of various types, thanks to the benign neglect of a teacher subsequently sectioned for trying to blackmail a major supermarket. But that's another story. You need medical students in class sawing up bodies under the close eye of an academic. It's when they take their work home with them that problems arise.

But I teach English in one department and Cultural Studies in another. The demands of the courses aren't the same. What we're trying to inculcate is critical skills. How to read carefully. Analysis. Looking for deeper cultural structures. Sensitivity to nuance. Awareness of the ideological, political, hegemonic and cultural paradigms in which texts and audiences exist.

These things require reflection and research. Lectures and seminars exist to provide students with the tools required to improve their own practice, and to point them in the right direction. We show them the ways in which texts can be examined, do some practice, test some of the critical perspectives and send them home to try it for themselves.

Personally, I'd like to see less of my students.

Let me explain that. Although a lot of my students are diligent and well-prepared, a lot aren't. Even at the end of the year-long modules I've just taught, significant numbers of students are turning up to classes without even bringing copies of books they openly admit they haven't read. They then waste the time of the prepared students by demanding back-to-basics discussions: who characters are, plot details and so on. In the media classes, we get students who can't name a newspaper or don't know what differentiates the BBC from commercial channels. Personally, I don't see how more contact hours with someone who hasn't made the slightest effort to prepare helps anyone. I can extol the virtues of active self-education and the joys of intellectual inquiry until I'm blue in the face, but we'll both go home depressed and resentful. Even more than usual.

What we want is students coming to class and saying things like 'I've been reading X's book and her theory is different from yours because…'. It does happen. Not very often, but it does. In the humanities, lectures and seminars should be the starting point for an unseen iceberg of private study. If we can engage the students' interest, it happens. But too often, students have been trained (by schools, and by a general consumerist ethos) to assume that classes are where we tell them 'the answers', even though the key truth of postmodern humanities is that there are no true answers.

Furthermore, although I love teaching and never feel I've understood anything until I've taught it to others, there's a limit. I'm drained and exhausted at the moment. Any more teaching and I'd have to stop reading, which means dumber and more limited lectures. It means spending a few minutes less on each essay. It means never having the chance to learn your names and get a sense of your childcare problems, your financial difficulties and your interest (or otherwise) in the material. Of course some universities have solutions for this. In some posh ones, the postgraduate students do proportionately more of the boring teaching while the more single-minded professors have the intellectual fun out in the archives and at conferences. It disgusts me. Come to The Hegemon, where active researchers share their work with undergraduates every day. The other solution, which poor, big and cynical universities like, is shifting everything online. Video lectures, MOOCs, buying in pre-packed courses and the like. Again, it's a pile-em-high, shut-them-up solution. You get what looks like an education because you're watching someone talk about stuff, but it isn't really. When you kill someone in World of Warcraft, they're not dead. It's just pixels. When you 'attend' an online lecture, you're not really getting an education. You can't put your hand up and make a point. The lecturer doesn't know what your last essay said, or what you've been reading. You can't propose a new idea to your class for them to pull it apart or adopt it themselves. In cyberspace, nobody can hear you think.

League tables, SATs and all the paraphernalia of the pseudo-scientific pedagogical system has persuaded students that there are simple truths and that they can be acquired at the feet of an adept. It's authoritarian and it's wrong. It's anti-educational because it removes the student's agency and duty of enquiry.

My university is currently trying desperately hard to improve attendance. I support that: attending classes improves students intellectually and on paper. Talking to me and talking to other students is the route to success, however that's defined. But simply herding people into classes on the basis that £X in fees should = X hours at a desk is ludicrous. This isn't a gym in which X hours on a treadmill burns x calories. What they're paying for (and what the state should be paying for instead) is access to wisdom, resources, evaluation and above all time to educate themselves, with our help. Seriously: skipping class to read a book is a far better use of your time than sloping in, slumping at the back, signing in and checking Facebook.

Do students really want more lectures? If they came to everything available, I might believe them. But we're all used to half-populated lectures, to a bunch of students disappearing between lectures and seminars (brainwashed into thinking that only the lecturer has anything useful to say rather than their peers too) and months in which office hours – the only time they'll ever get one-to-one discussions here – see not a single student.

Education's really simple. Read the set texts. Read the secondary material. Read anything else that catches your eye. Come to class and talk. Ask questions. Make observations. Talk in seminars. Ignore the people who roll their eyes or call you a swot. If your lecturers aren't putting in the effort, make a fuss. If there aren't enough teachers (and there aren't), say so: to your teachers, to your Students' Union, to the Vice-Chancellor, to the National Student Survey.

Above all, don't be a consumer. Be a participant. Educate yourself with our help. Don't just turn up and expect a certificate.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

The glamorous life of the academic

Hi everybody. It's late afternoon and I'm only just posting something here. I must have an outrage gland deficiency or something.

The truth is that I've been suffering academic overload. Literally everything I deal with has come up today. There's the marking of course - dissertations first, particularly the discussions with the other marker to agree a grade. Then there's consoling distraught students – postgrads this time, trying to solve completely understandable dilemmas without causing offence or treading on people's toes. I've had several calls for union help, and I've received the readers' reports on two papers I wrote. Oh, and arranging visiting speakers for next year's research sessions. Plus the usual routine of gossip and meetings: last night the deputy head of the Quality Assurance Agency gave a very enlightening lecture. Amongst other things, he said that the posh universities tried to claim that inspection is really only for proletarian hellholes like The Hegemon, and that the Tories are pushing through their education-wrecking plans through quangos rather than face the scrutiny which comes from passing Higher Education legislation. I paraphrase, of course, but it's pretty clear that not having any mandate won't stop them behaving like North Korean Dear Leaders.

If you don't know how the system works, it's like this. You write a paper and submit it to the editors. They send an anonymised copy out to two readers who recommend whether or not to publish it, and if so, whether any revisions need making. Then you do the necessary and send it back, alongside a response detailing whether you ignored or accepted the recommendations.

Luckily, my papers were very well-received, but there's still work to do. The readers made some really useful observations about factual stuff, emphasis and structure: it's exactly how peer review is meant to work. But of course a lot of the alterations are time-consuming. For instance: I thought I'd got the right referencing system. Turns out I haven't. So I've got to go through every quote, footnote and endnote changing them. The guidance is 39 pages long. My eyes are bleeding… and the marking is staring at me balefully.

The soundtrack for the day has been Low - all 14 albums in reverse chronological order. Restful, beautiful but also deeply melancholy. Ideal for grading dissertations and theoretically dictating the course of students' lives. Tomorrow it's an early meeting supporting a colleague through a disciplinary hearing (let's face it: I'll be facing one myself if I keep blogging the way I am, so I need the practice), then more marking and in the evening, at long last, I'll go fencing again. I always find that the antidote to a big pile of marking is to spend an evening viciously attacking people with bladed weapons. Don't you?

Here are some of Low's songs.

and for melancholic fun, Galaxie 500's cover of the Rutles' Beatles parody 'Cheese and Onions'.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Plashing Vole's Cultural Capers

Hi everybody. Monday going well for you all I trust? I'm marking dissertations. Well, I'm meant to be marking dissertations… I'm not entirely goofing off: lots of people have been coming in looking for help or helping me with things. And I overslept, thanks to a protracted nightmare which involved an alarm clock which wouldn't switch off even after I'd disassembled it. I think that counts as irony.

I had a rather magnificent weekend. Apart from marking some dissertations, I went to a recording of Any Questions, the Radio 4 predecessor of TV's Question Time, saw the new Star Trek film, and saw Athlete's final gig on their 10-year anniversary tour.

Question Time was rather good fun. It didn't start well: I had my own personalised monsoon, which lasted for precisely the time it took to get from the bus to the Keele University bar where I met my friends. I'm not sure I have ever been so wet. The rain was heavier than it's ever been, and my very expensive Montane waterproof jacket seems to have been designed to channel all the water directly to the crotch of my not-at-all waterproof trousers. My question to the panel should have been 'does anyone have any dry clothes please?', or given that I had a couple of scoops, 'would the panel fancy a kebab?'. However, despite steaming and chafing throughout the recording, it was fun. The guests were the awful Christine Hamilton (who seemed to imply that all immigrants are free-loading criminals and tax-avoiders: to an audience of overseas teachers and students); Patrick McLoughlin, a ponderously dull Tory government minister whose only claim to fame is that as a former miner, he's betrayed his class, the walking organ-donor Stephen Twigg, meant to defend public education against the depredations of Michael Gove, though I've never met anyone who knows who he is, and Yasmin Alibhai Brown, the rather excellent, witty and thoughtful journalist whose work I never read because it's in the Independent. 

We had a good heckle, which encouraged the students around us to do the same, clapped the progressive points and roundly booed the xenophobic and reactionary ones. I'd planned to ask the panel whether modern politics has enough room for humility and self-doubt, because as far as I can see, it doesn't, to its detriment. I posed the same question to David Miliband, who signally failed to understand it. However, my question wasn't chosen. The panel discussed transport, Europe, immigration and several other topics, and the audience seemed split between a UKIP minority and a liberal-left majority. All in all: good clean fun. Get it here, if you're in the UK: listen to me heckle Christine Hamilton for unselfconsciously blaming crime on immigrants, despite her husband taking bribes to ask questions in Parliament.

And then to Star Trek: Into Darkness. My, what a glorious caper. It looks great, the action sequences are brilliant, it's paced well, the slightly lame ST humour is intact, the performances are excellent - a great popcorn movie. Plus all the 'uneasy lies the crown' stuff, the homosocial bonding etc etc. And we get the original music back at the end. Heaven

But there's more to it. For the Trek fans – of which I'm one, though not as dedicated as the couple who turned up in Starfleet uniform – the movie plays affectionately fast and loose with the canon. The film is effectively a prequel to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which as we all know is about Khan's revenge on Kirk and ends with Spock's death (don't worry: the rather weak but lovely Star Trek III: The Search for Spock regenerates him). Into Darkness introduces characters central to the earlier films' plots, is spattered with lovely references to episodes to the original series and stages an astonishing reversal of the final homosocially heart-breaking scene of The Wrath of Khan. Audacious, yes, though it somewhat strips Spock of agency - you'll know what I mean when you see it.

Into Darkness is also an explicitly political film too. Kirk is sent off by the supreme commander of Starfleet to murder a terrorist using torpedoes: no trial, no warning. His plan, it becomes clear, is to provoke a war and turn Starfleet into a military organisation rather than an exploratory one. In the grand Star Trek tradition then, the film takes on Iraq, Afghanistan, the death of Bin Laden and Obama's policy of preferring drone attacks to trials, even of American citizens. It's also an interesting film culturally. While a chunk of London is blown up at the start (American filmmakers like blowing up London and Paris: far away enough for American audiences not to mind, yet still recognisable even by Texans), it's rare for films to trash American cities since 9/11. And yet here we have the renegade villain (Benedict Cumberbatch) demolishing half of San Francisco. Clearly Americans are ready for this stuff, though I suspect the conservative viewer wouldn't mind so much: Starfleet's HQ is there in honour of that city's famous commitment to peace, love and understanding - San Francisco is a byword for liberalism in conservative circles.

Finally in this hectic weekend, I was given a guest list ticket to see Athlete, celebrating the 10th anniversary of their début album Vehicles and Animals. I have one of their LPs somewhere, but I have to confess to not knowing much about them: there's a gap in my musical library between about 2002-2008 when I was a) broke and b) mostly buying experimental classical stuff and folk. So I knew Athlete are nice chaps with good tunes: anthemic and upbeat. Well, seeing them live was rather a revelation: their quite pretty songs came with a lot of muscle, and the crowd really made a difference. I had no idea they had such a devoted cult - but this crowd (young and old, mixed sex, mostly white) sang every single word. For someone like me, lacking emotional commitment to the band, it was hugely enjoyable to watch 1500 people united in song. Oh yes: great theremin playing too.

Here's 'Out of Nowhere' - the one with the theremin.

and 'Black Swan'.

Right. Back to the marking.

Friday, 10 May 2013

A blogger yearns to care about banal junk once more

Hi everybody, new readers and old. It's been a weird few days. I'm snowed under by work, but kept getting distracted by the antics of Michael Gove and the popular response to the piece I wrote about him yesterday. I normally get around 200 readers daily: yesterday that one piece attracted nearly 4000 of you, for which you have my thanks and apologies. The driver of all this traffic was Twitter, particularly the Re-Tweets of two of my favourite people, Graham Linehan (the TV writer) and Cory Doctorow, hero of the Utopian Techno-age.

I'm heartened to learn that a) a lot of people feel the same way as I do and b) that my jokes occasionally hit the target: the people I interact with in meatspace usually respond to my humorous forays with groans, grimaces and occasionally sharp objects delivered at considerable velocity. Perhaps Blogger is the new Reader's Digest funnies page. I also want to thank those of you who commented. I really care about blogging as a way of extending a conversation: I link as much as possible and I take comments seriously, learning a lot from support and criticism alike. Apologies too for the length of the post: I kept thinking about more stuff to put in - I'd be an editor's nightmare. Another joy of blogging: no editors.

Against my higher instincts, it was also fascinating and gratifying to sit watching the readership increase, minute by minute. Despite cherishing you all for your unique characteristics and abilities, there's something ego-fuelling about watching numbers tick upwards on a screen. I know really that these figures are arbitrary and in isolation meaningless, but I now also fully understand why they call it 'stat porn'.

However, it's back to normality today. My 15 minutes are over and despite the gratification, I'm also relieved. My regular readers will know how inconsequential my writing usually is, and you new folks will soon pick it up (or leave). That said, I gather that my piece about the university's uncritical promotion of entrepreneurial discourse, and its links to frankly unimpressive salesmen, has attracted a complaint to my superiors. I will of course, keep you posted. I see this as a matter of free speech and academic freedom. I made justifiable intellectual points: the disciplinary process is not the appropriate forum to explore them. That's what the comments box is for!

And so to today's duties. You know when I said I'd be an editor's nightmare? Well I've just submitted a grossly extended review of RS Thomas: Uncollected Poems and RS Thomas's Poems to Elsi to Poetry Wales. In my defence, they approached me to do it, and they're paying me, so I reckon they're getting value for money, at least in terms of volume: my work comes out at 2p per word. Let's not talk about quality: I've told the editors to be as blunt as they need.

Poetry's Marvin the Paranoid Android greets the day with his customary good cheer

I won't repeat my review here, but I'll say this: buy the books unless you've never read any of his work, in which case you should started with the Collected Poems. They're great works of scholarship and they deepened my understanding of RS Thomas's work and method. Thomas was a fierce Welsh nationalist, a campaigner for the language who learned Welsh late and wrote poetry only in English. He was an agnostic vicar and a hater of technology who remained fascinated by quantum physics, through which he detected a space for the God he hoped existed. He was cold, rude, searching, misanthropic and also (I think) loving and very funny. One of things I say in the review is that lines like 'the incorrigibly human / with their dogs and their fags and children… the smut and the crap re-begin' ('Thoughts by the Sea') and 'Went to the sea; stared / at the birds. Did they / stare back?' (Excursion) surely deliberately play up grumpy Thomas's reputation to comic effect.

Anyway, if you want to read more, you'll have to buy Poetry Wales. It's a great and beautifully-designed magazine, so buy it anyway.

So it's back to marking and the quiet life. Lots of dissertations and essays to read, but some fun stuff too. I'm going to a recording of Radio 4's Any Questions tonight. Not as brutally unintelligent as Question Time, but still potentially infuriating. I lead a sedentary existence, so cold fury is the only cardio-vascular exercise I get. After that, I'm off to see the Star Trek film – I've never warmed to Star Wars, and on Sunday, I've been put on the guest list for Athlete, which should be a lot of fun.

It's not all work work work. See you next week, if I haven't been sacked.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

The educational fish rots from the head

I've got two book reviews to write today, so I need to get my brain working and my typing finger warmed up. What better way than to have a pop at Michael Gove?

(This is going to get text-heavy and ranty. If you fancy the funny, beautifully-pitched graphic version, Paul Bernal's got it right here). 

If you think I need a reason, let's start with this. Yesterday, I excoriated my own university for its uncritical acceptance of entrepreneurial discourse, and the way it falls over itself to pay shysters for their snake-oil. 

A little later yesterday I chanced upon a Freedom of Information request by one Janet Downs, to whom a statue should be erected by public subscription, preferably outside the Department for Education. Intrigued by Mr Gove's assertion (in the Mail on Sunday, naturally) that:

"Survey after survey has revealed disturbing historical ignorance,with one teenager in five believing Winston Churchill was a fictional character while 58 per cent think Sherlock Holmes was real."
I should be grateful if you could give me details of these surveys: who ran them, what questions were asked, when the surveys took place, and size and make-up of samples. 
she pressed the DFE for details. After all, the Government's education minister must be drawing on the talents and research skills of the very best academics and civil servants in the land, right? These surveys will be rigorous, extensive, statistically-significant and representative. Won't they? After all, Mr Gove is continually telling us that standards must be raised. 

Back came the reply, revealing that Mr Gove's commitment to 'outsourcing' and small government reaches the parts other ministers cannot reach:

Dear Ms Downs 
Thank you for your email of 26 March, requesting details of a survey about teenagers’ lack of historical knowledge.
Unfortunately, I am not able to provide you with the details of the survey as it was commissioned and conducted by UKTV Gold.  I would advise thatyou contact UKTV Gold direct, as they should be able to assist you on this matter.
Yours sincerely
Emma Seymour, Curriculum Policy Division
That's right. The Secretary of State for Education, the scourge of lazy thinking, relies on surveys conducted for promotional purposes by a TV repeats channel. What's on today? Multiple episodes of Last of the Summer Wine, Only Fools and Horses and (curiously for a channel seemingly shocked by historical inaccuracy), Goodnight Sweetheart, whose central device is a time machine used by a chap to conduct romances both in the present and in 1940s Britain (and about which I've often been tempted to write an academic paper or two).  

But at least we can rely on the accuracy and rigour of UKTV Gold's research, can't we? Er… apparently not. Grahame Whitfield kindly pointed me towards the Local Schools Network's analysis. Oh dear. Oh dearie, dearie me. They unearthed the actual poll, which dates back to 2008, and found a few teensy, weeny problems. Firstly, it didn't test 'teenagers' specifically, but 3000 'people'. Which might lead one to think that Mr Gove is rather disingenuous. Or lazy. One could further assume that many of those adults were educated during his own party's 18 years in office from 1979-1997. 

And that's not all. Poor UKTV Gold seems to be labouring under some historical misapprehensions of its own. As the LSN points out, 

the survey listed Lady Godiva as fictional and said 12% believed she was real. But the 12% were right – Lady Godiva endowed monasteries at Stow and Coventry. And the 47% who thought “fictional” Eleanor Rigby was real were no doubt thinking of Paul McCartney’s anecdote that he found the name on a gravestone.
Looking at the company's PR-driven report, it becomes clear that they really don't know very much about history, or indeed historiography. 
most people believe that fictional figures such as King Arthur, Sherlock Holmes and Eleanor Rigby really existed. 
King Arthur, Sherlock Holmes and Robin Hood top the list of fictional characters that Brits are most likely to confuse with fact 
Now it's true that there's no archaeological evidence for Robin Hood and King Arthur, but there's no shortage of cultural artefacts, such as the 6th century Welsh poem Y Gododdin. No doubt the 'real' Arthur and Robin (there were several possible Robin models) are nothing like the representations purveyed by UKTV Gold, but they aren't exactly fictional. For a bracingly sceptical Arthur survey, I recommend Guy Halsall's Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages (OUP 2013). For Robin, start with Stephen Knight's Robin Hood: a Mythic Biography

Let's look at UKTV's Top Ten:

Top ten fictional characters that the British public thinks are real
  • 1) King Arthur – 65%
  • 2) Sherlock Holmes – 58%
  • 3) Robin Hood – 51%
  • 4) Eleanor Rigby – 47%
  • 5) Mona Lisa -35%
  • 6) Dick Turpin – 34%
  • 7) Biggles – 33%
  • 8) The Three Musketeers – 17%
  • 9) Lady Godiva – 12%
  • 10) Robinson Crusoe – 5%
So: Arthur (dubious); Holmes (fictional); Robin (dubious, and yet UKTV Gold has shown Robin TV series, contributing to our ignorance); Eleanor Rigby (definitely real); Mona Lisa (a portrait with several strong candidates); Dick Turpin (real), Biggles (fictional) the Musketeers (a real military formation, with whom d'Artagnan really fought in the 17th century), Lady Godiva (real) and Robinson Crusoe who, though fictional, was closely based on the experiences of Alexander Selkirk.

The whole thing is rather incoherent:

Nearly half of us (47%) have no idea who Richard the Lionheart was; even though the historical figure has featured in numerous films throughout the 21st Century. 
Perhaps, UKTV Gold, people don't watch these films much. When was the last film about Richard? Are you subtly suggesting both that a) fictionalised films are reliable history and that b) we're thick because we watch too much TV? Better switch off UKTV Gold then!

And one more thing. In your Top Ten Real People Britons Think Are Mythical:

10) Charles Dickins - 3%
Suddenly UKTV Gold is looking thicker than its survey participants. 

But Ms Downs was not satisfied by the DfE's reply (one curiously unashamed that its positions are unsupported by substantive research). She went back for more:
Thank you for your reply saying that one survey about teenagers'lack of historical knowledge was done by UKGold.
I should be grateful if you could let me know when the survey was undertaken.
Michael Gove referred to "survey after survey". This indicates that there was more than just one. But you have given me the name of only one.
Would it be fair to say that there was actually only one survey and not several as Mr Gove said?
And we're very grateful for her tenacity, because the DfE reply moved from UKTV Gold to purest Comedy Gold:
As advised previously, you would need to contact UKTV Gold to find out details of their survey, including when it was undertaken.
The other survey’s the Secretary of State referred to include:
·        a survey of 2000 11 to 16 year olds by Premier Inn;
·        a study commissioned by Lord Ashcroft of 1000 children aged 11 to 18 to mark the unveiling of the Bomber Command Memorial in London;
·        a report by Professor Robert Tombs for think-tank Politeia;
·        an article by London Mums Magazine[1]
·        research carried out by the Sea Cadets to mark the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar[2]
Let us pass over the apostrophe abuse lightly: there are bigger fish to fry. For lo! Mr Gove's instinctive fear that the kids are being thickened rests on more than a TV company's PR stunt. Why, a budget hotel chain ran a survey. Sadly, they won't tell us who did the research, how they selected their participants, what the question were or anything else: their Facebook page links only to the Independent's space-filling summary, an article clearly written by PI's PR team, and which uses the (new to me) word 'cruelness', which makes the adults look more stupid than the kids. What Premier Inn's motivation is, beyond cheap publicity, is beyond me – but I hope they're proud to contribute to official government policy. 

What of the other 'research'? Well, Lord Ashcroft is the very strange, tax-evading billionaire who ran his survey as a publicity stunt for his memorial to the men who flattened Dresden and killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. His memorial is notable for a) its terrible architecture and b) the prominence of its donors' names, not a notable feature of previous war memorials: also engraved on the wall is the name of Bee Gee Robin Gibb, someone else who has translated childhood war games into adult triumphalism. At least the actual data is available, though again, it hasn't been contextualised in any way and he uses it to promote Gove's 1950s Greyfriars fantasy. 

Moving on. Robert Tombs (Prof in French Political History) and Politeia. Well, let's just say that Politeia is a political think-tank which exists solely to justify any given Conservative policy initiative. Its work is not peer-reviewed or published in academic journals, and is therefore not reliably rigorous. The good Professor's co-authors are interesting: one teaches history in private boarding school (qualifications unknown) and the other has a PhD in the history of history teaching but appears not to have any further public presence or job. The report insists that 'British history' must be taught from Hadrian onwards, as though 'British' is a meaningful term that far back.  It happily cites 'newspaper reports' as evidence for serious accusations about the integrity of the exam system, and claims that because other countries have a narrowly nationalist curriculum, the UK should too! 

The report is certainly dubious, but it makes some points which Mr Gove could usefully digest:

emphasize the academic values rooted in each subject. These can only be properly understood by those versed in the subject: the teachers, who should be allowed to teach in accord with their judgement, and the academic subject specialists, whose lifetime of study qualifies them to propose the curricula and set the examinations 
Especially given that several reports suggest that Mr Gove wrote the entire proposed history curriculum himself (that's according to the distinguished historian Richard Evans who, though Gove praises him, describes the new curriculum as a 'pub quiz'), having discarded the suggestions his own Tory friends gave him. Certainly not my idea of academic freedom. But this paragraph implies that Prof Tombs and Co should rather disapprove of a Minister who bases his assumptions on cheap TV channel PR stunts. 

As to the rest: a magazine article and a newspaper report? No disrespect to London Mums, the Sea Cadets and the Telegraph (amusingly, the first comment attacks American ignorance while spelling 'Runnymede' incorrectly), but really. The London Mums article claims that 63% of children can't spell 'achievement', and lists several other howlers. Their source? A commercial exam revision website which just might have an interest in persuading parents to part with extra cash by making stark claims about their kids' ignorance. Sadly, they don't provide any details about their survey: questions, sample size and collection: nothing reliable at all. It's a pub quiz dressed up as research. Ironically, the London Mums article critiquing kids' illiteracy is replete with stylistic and grammatical errors, sweeping unjustified assertions (the dates 'everyone' used to know, for example). Worst of all, the author thinks that 'mumpreneur' is a word. For which she deserves a painful and public punishment. 

I teach at a rather good, though unfashionable, university. If my students submitted work which turned out to be based on this kind of rubbish, we'd fail them. I have a big sign on my wall which reads:

We spend a lot of time explaining to them the difference between serious research and 'stuff you can Google'. This is a whole other level. We're talking government policy which will affect the lives and opportunities of millions of children. Anecdotes based on PR stunts cannot form the basis for policy. MUST. DO. BETTER. 

What really annoys me is this. Michael Gove is an intelligent man. He knows this behaviour is wrong. That gives him a moral responsibility to behave better. But for reasons of pure cynicism, he actively chooses to distort, cheat and mislead. This isn't accidental: it's a strategy.

No wonder my university thinks it's OK to hire charlatans when this is the example set by Whitehall. 

Update: Gove has turned his attention to English, invoking the spirit of FR Leavis to attack 'narrow' curricula by calling for a return to the 'transcendent' 'Canon' of 'Great' literature, by which he means dead white British authors, which seems pretty narrow to me: if Gove had been alive in the 19th-century, he'd have moaned about junk like Dickens and advocated a return to Plato and Empedocles, in Greek of course, and to the use of the Mr Men to explore Hitler's rise and fall in history classes. 

You good people have read quite enough of my ranting, so I'll be brief on this bit. Reading doesn't always have to be 'educational'. People discover texts at different times in their lives. I was forced to read Dickens too young, and it took 15 years before I realised for myself that he had a lot of charm and profundity (still not reconciled to the supposedly comic stuff). FR Leavis, the eminence grise of Gove's worldview didn't include Dickens in his original canon, because canons are just indicators of the current hegemony's concerns, and not guides to Eternal Truths About Life, the Universe and Everything. People read for entertainment. For enlightenment about their own cultural context, not just history. People read for comfort and above all to discover themselves and others. People might start with Twilight and discover books that you and I consider better. Others might read Twilight AND 'the greats'. 

For instance, as an undergraduate, I was taught by one of the world's greatest Arthurian literary scholars, Professor PJC Field. He was, we thought, a snob. Then I met him in WHSmith's. He was buying a pile of Dick Francis novels. Spotting me sniggering in a superior fashion, he announced that 'Man cannot live by Arthurian literature alone' and departed. For a long time, because I was an insecure and uptight teenager who couldn't relax with matters cultural in case someone caught me out, I thought I'd won that exchange. It was only later, when I'd read some critical theory, got something approximating a life and matured considerably, that I realise he'd won. He wasn't ashamed or insecure of his cultural choices, and I was. I learned a lot from that. So should Mr Gove. 

The idea that literature is 'transcendent' is just embarrassing nonsense. 'Transcendent' isn't a critical term: it's an anti-critical term. If I asked my students why Shakespeare is great and they replied 'because he transcends time and cultures', that would be the end of the conversation. Whereas replying 'Shakespeare is great because he took all the concerns of his period and cultural position and made ambiguous, complex drama out of them which can be read in the following ways…' is the start of a fantastic, life-long conversation. 'Transcendent' is the product of one quite recent critical position. It's not a historical one either: Shakespeare wasn't particularly popular for a long time after his death, and the Victorians joyously tacked happy endings onto the tragedies to suit their needs (they didn't like the lack of cosmic justice involved in Cordelia's death, for instance). 

Canons are repressive concepts. They tell you what an élite thinks you should know, rather than what everybody read: Dickens was outsold by several people whose works you never hear about now. I've no problem with making value judgements - but I do object to people who disguise their value judgements as universal truths. It's dishonest and oppressive. 

What he doesn't mention – and you'll have seen this coming – is that the Mr Men example isn't some widespread, pernicious dereliction of duty committed by the Marxist Enemies of Promise he frequently evokes. It's mentioned on a lesson plan. A lesson plan made available on a commercial website. For the iGCSE, Gove's beloved semi-O-Level used by a lot of snobby private schools. 

Yet again, he's smearing all teachers by resorting to selective quotation and nonexistent attribution.