Monday, 21 March 2016

Paying in kind(ness)

At the end of last week I wrote a fairly incoherent piece which boiled down to this: academics, students and managers need to be a little bit nicer to each other (it seemed to strike a chord out there and Music for Deckchairs even flattered me out of all proportion with this). Despite the rhetoric of (1980s) business which has infected the academy (certainly there's no sign of Google-style relaxation zones, massages and cereal bars at my place, though there is the pervasive surveillance and fiscal secrecy) we are one of the few professions which has a long and mostly proud tradition of collegiality – the clue's in the adjective. Here in Britain the government is systematically targeting the professions to reduce to the status of a proletariat and render them vulnerable to the vicissitudes (sorry, efficiencies) of the market: nurses, doctors, teachers and even lawyers have been undermined. Academics have only been left until because we don't matter so much, though universities certainly do. 

So anyway, having established the necessity for nurturing an ethic of kindness in the Republic of Letters, what are the barriers and how do we get around them? This is only a partial and idiosyncratic list in no particular order, but it's based on what I see around here and elsewhere. I should say at this point that most of what I say is drawn from my experience as a union representative and university governor: I've been very lucky in my colleagues.

A few years ago a friend of mine got a job in a very prestigious university's very prestigious English department, having previously been a senior lecturer in two other institutions. Within a few weeks she was physically removed from her office and walked – by the head of department – to a hall to oversee a day's worth of examinations. Why her? Well, it turned out that there was a high-powered speaker coming to do some research seminars and the HoD didn't want the bright young things to miss out. Entirely coincidentally, it turned out that all the Bright Young Things were posh young white men, each of whom was treated like Little Lord Fauntleroy by their equally posh, white male Gods amongst the professoriate.

Invigilation, it seems, is one of those menial jobs which is best left to women or other such losers, not the stars of the future. Other menial jobs include: first year lectures (not important, apparently); advising and counselling students; survey modules; study skills; visiting schools, attending meetings; organising and attending events; boring committee work; simply being available. You may have your own list and I invite you to add them using the comments facility. It's not solely stereotypically female work, but previous generations have a term for it: Department Mother. If you don't know who your department mother is, it's probably you and it doesn't matter what your job title is: I know plenty of Head of School Dept Mums. Sexist terminology aside, it's important work and you should be congratulated for doing it. More than that, you should be rewarded and promoted for doing it. When students and colleagues leave, they remember the person who was always there, who bought them a coffee or loaned them that book they lost, took pleasure in their successes, commiserated with them for their struggles, read their draft papers and gave them a generous reference that didn't mention The Case of the Vanishing Milk or the time they nominated you for the Positive Environment Working Group Sub-Committee C. At least I think they will. Roses inexplicably fail to pile up outside my door. Though as my old mother always said, your reward will be in heaven.

The question is, should we Herbivores – I regret the use of 'plodder' in my previous post and now substitute a taxonomy of Herbivores v Carnivores (it could be far, far worse) – bask in the expectation of eternal life, and is it good for us, our colleagues, our students and our institutions, let alone The College Invisible? I would suggest it isn't. If you spend your time being Department Mother, you're letting rather a lot of other people – the carnivores – be the Department Absent Father and yes, it is a patriarchal structure. They 'work from home' and hold cursory 'office hours' of 0758-0807 every third Thursday. They churn out the grant applications and projects and keynotes and books and make it look effortless because they've informally outsourced lots of the work of being a good academic citizen to we herbivores. It's not that we can't do the same thing, it's that we've allowed ourselves to become enablers of privilege. I refuse to believe that I and my friends, getting out a decent chapter now and then are constitutionally incapable of producing more and better research, or writing better lectures, or leading inspiration tutorials. Instead, I believe that we have been taken advantage of as a group. We have clung to co-operative values in a system which deforms co-operation.

The situation is of course rather more grey than this black-and-white construction implies: outside the very rarefied atmospheres of élite institutions nobody escapes the quotidian work, but some are better at avoiding it than others. Their work isn't not done: it's done by others and it's rarely acknowledged that their successes are due at least in part to the efforts of others. It reminds me, in fact, of Selma James's campaign for Wages For Housework. The underlying discourse is not generated by the Carnivores but by wider social pressures. The individualism which emerged from the Renaissance and Protestant capitalism in the 15th-17th centuries privileged the Individual Genius who rises above the herd to Achieve Greatness. It's a doctrine familiar from Trump to Carnegie, but from academia to pig-breeding, Obama's assertion applies: the Individual Genius relies on the work done by his or her entire society.
if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. (Applause.) 
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet. 
The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.
 Most of our carnivorous colleagues know this. They support the sentiment. But the system encourages them to behave as though it wasn't true. Research evaluation frameworks, sabbaticals, promotion criteria, appraisals, funding applications, the class structures of academia, the tacit division of work between Genius and Menial: all conspire to encourage the division of the Achiever sheep from the Nurturing goats.

As far as I can see, there are social and systemic solutions to this. At a personal level, we must develop and promote empathy as a core constituent of what it means to be a good academic citizen. Ask yourself how you felt as a first-year student, as a new PhD candidate, as an hourly-paid lecturer, junior research fellow or freshly-spawned head of department. If you didn't like how it felt, don't perpetuate the structures and behaviours which made life hard. Distribute 'plum' modules or year-groups around the department rather than treat them as rewards for instance, or (and I'm a big fan of this one) discourage the idea that teaching first-years or research skills or whatever are somehow less important than a module based on your book. Make sure your students are invited to events even if you strongly suspect they won't turn up: a few will. Treat everyone as a community of intellectuals and try to understand the academic and social landscape from their perspective even if their perspective is partial (whose isn't) or just plain wrong. Have high expectations of everyone but comprehend their starting points. Identify the Department Mother and formally or informally share their burdens. If you can't bear teaching and see it as detracting from your magnum opus: fake it. The Academy is nothing if not a collective effort and if you can't hack it, sod off. On which contradictorily rude note, I suggest that what we need to look at is the idea of Slow Scholarship. I didn't invent it: I only heard of it yesterday, but Alison Phipps has pointed me towards a very persuasive paper about it as a feminist space for resistance, while the ever-reliable Thesis Whisperer and Liz Thackray have been thinking about it as praxis for ages

A few years ago a Professor of Education gave a lecture in which she said that all students should be treated as tabulae rasa; that whatever their cultural contexts and experiences, they should be treated absolutely identically. It struck me as the worst kind of nonsense, derived from the spurious claims of 'equality of opportunity' and meritocracy that has replaced intellectual enquiry in the political classes. I think I would make a plea for the very opposite when we think about our colleagues, our successors and our students. They aren't stupid and they aren't identical. They have needs, desires and aspirations which should be examined, elucidated and in most cases nurtured. One of the reasons I'm a raving Red subversive is that I follow William Morris and the utopian socialists' belief that we all have enormous potential, potential which is stifled by the discourses of consumerism, acquisition and above all competition. Where Morris postulated revolution we have the struggle to reform our institutions and the social structures that construct them, but I also think that we have agency. Our institutions are not physical, nor the property of sectional interests but Imaginary Communities in Anderson's sense. We make them and remake them with every thing we do, every remark we make. Whether it's refusing to sit on all-male panels, surprising someone with the offer of a co-written paper   simply because you know they're working on interesting things, or going off-piste in a class because something tangential but intelligent has come up in conversation, we can subtly remould the institution under the radar.

We should, however, be remoulding the institution above the radar too. Rotating heads of department (not paid extra here: they get 50! hours) so those poor dumb animals get to have some fun too. Demand that managers still do some teaching. Replace your executive with a Senate. Democratise your departments whether the students want to be or not (one of my departments recently invited students to participate in the hiring process: none came). Unionise, always unionise. Talk, to the point of tedium, about exactly how big the sex and class and race gaps are between students, Herbivores, Carnivores and management. If you're a Herbivore, tell your colleagues about the interesting things you're doing and the interesting things you want to do. Take on a big scary job that might actually involve wielding power. Finally – and this is not something I've managed to do yet – learn to say NO  and Yes: No to that final straw, or to that task that attaches itself to you because you're the only reliable one, or the only one who reliably takes things on. Yes to the new, the weird, the opportunities that normally get grabbed by the Carnivores. If you are Carnivore, take on a class you'd normally avoid. Ask your herbivorous colleagues how you can help and what they get out of the stuff you'd forgotten needed doing. Colleagues are for life, not just for breakfast…

In all things, behave as though we're this close to Paradise. We have a special social space which is hugely privileged, and which can be a model for society. If you behave like a Utopian, you'll wake up in Utopia.

'…talking of Michelangelo'

So we hosted two very exciting novelists last week in an art gallery!,  reading from and talking about their work. Hosted by poet, novelist and creative writer Paul McDonald, the first was James Hannah, author of the elegiac but also very witty The A-Z of You and Me, who explained how necessary it was to be funny about impending death. Coming from a family of medics black humour has always been part of the conversation so I didn't need persuading, but the audience was enthralled.

This is how we always dress for literary occasions
The headline act was Catherine O'Flynn, who made a huge splash with her debut novel What Was Lost back in 2008. Her latest piece is Mr Lynch's Holiday, an exploration of emigré Irish identity and the ways in which we come to terms with our parents' agency and autonomy just as we realise that 'kidulthood' just isn't enough to cope with the demands of contemporary life (something I thought about recently while reading Margery Allingham's Coroner's Pidgin, in which the fun-loving Bright Young Things of the 1930s have to cope – or not – with killing and being killed in WW2).

As well as reading from their works, Catherine and James discussed their habits as authors, the ways in which they consciously structured their texts, the challenge of being funny through multiple drafts, the notion of the 'difficult second novel' (Catherine says she only writes a novel when provoked by interesting thoughts, which seems reasonable) and much else besides.

Many thanks to Wolverhampton Art Gallery for hosting the event: the Georgian room looked lovely, the beer was cold and we look forward to many more similar events with them.

The audience gathers

Audience members react to Catherine O'Flynn

Catherine O'Flynn

Catherine O'Flynn amidst a literary salon 

Sometimes it got a bit hairy

Dr Colbert introduces the guests

Catherine O'Flynn reads from Mr Lynch's Holiday

Catherine O'Flynn receives tumultuous applause

Catherine O'Flynn and James Hannah

James Hannah reads from The A-Z of You and Me

James Hannah reading from The A-Z of You and Me

Catherine O'Flynn and James Hannah

Catherine O'Flynn and James Hannah

James Hannah gets passionate

It all gets a bit spooky for James Hannah


One audience member recoils from the filth purveyed by our visiting authors

Our genial host, Dr Paul McDonald

Paul McDonald and Catherine O'Flynn

Friday, 18 March 2016

Good enough

Unlike some academics, I'm completely upfront about struggling and failure. One of the distinct things I remember from doing my PhD was stretches of getting nothing done, or nothing good, or understanding nothing, or being unable to string together two meaningful sentences. All around me were people who'd apparently swanned through their studies and went on to write two books for breakfast then securing a Leverhulme before lunch. Now I'm a PhD supervisor and am on friendly terms with several of the other postgrads we keep in the cellar, I try not to fake it. There's a line between being realistic and open and being discouraging that I try not to cross, but I think there's something useful in acknowledging that one can get through a PhD, then build something that from a distance looks like a career without being a Nobel winner. Examples don't have to be shining, they sometimes have to be relatable. I'm a plodder. I get through things and once in a while there's a diamond in the clay. All the postgrads I know are smarter than me but they aren't necessarily as together as they appear or as their role models, so perhaps talking to someone who is open about struggling to get by might be reassuring.

Failure is something with which I'm long acquainted. I was pretty awful in school and only did well when inspired by decent teachers or subjects I liked. My university reference, written by my headteacher, advised any institutions not to admit me as it would be a waste of their and my time. Many thanks to the University of Derby English department for showing me that at the interview: I may not have chosen to come to you but I've had warm feelings about you ever since. I went to Bangor (via Clearing) and on paper, thrived: got some prizes, a First and an MA but it never felt easy, though it was enjoyable. When it came to the PhD I struggled the whole way and took a long research break afterwards, and still find writing difficult. And teaching. And admin. And talking intelligently to colleagues, managers and students. But I get through. I care about these people and I believe in my subject's importance. I just don't think it's helpful to constantly pressure people with talk of nothing but 4* articles and excellence. There's too much to do in too little time with too little money to be world-class in everything we do. What we can and should do is recognise the limits of what's possible and encourage people to do their best – and I don't just mean that managers need to do better. We all need a little more humanity.

I failed on Wednesday morning. I turned up at my class to discover that the rooming staff had accidentally forgotten to book a room. After a bit of stress we walked over to the other campus and tried again. I was discombobulated and those students who made it to the second venue were distracted too. Very few had read The Duchess of Malfi and I could tell it just wasn't working, so we skipped the seminar afterwards. Definitely a failure, though not entirely mine. Pedagogically though, probably the right decision, and an experience which has given me ideas for improving the lecture's focus and structure next time.

Over in Australia, this kind of banal event's disappearance in favour of the Permanent Revolution is what concerns Kate at Music For Deckchairs:
It’s a strategic move, that demands that we abandon modest efforts and incremental, careful practices; it mobilises us to the barricades of whatever—innovation, disruption, competition—trampling each other as we go. 
 And in each life lived in these unprecedented times we have to figure out what is enough for us, and enough to give, so that we can get on and survive the encroachments of big claims on our attention, our action, our loyalties to each other’s care. Figuring out what is enough is how we each hold on to the clover of our own values, and protect the thing we’re trying to protect, the small and hopeful thing we came here to do. 
I agree. I've long thought that kindness is underrated. I want to see more boring, low-level, humane kindness and empathy. I've long thought that HE 'thought leaders' have inhaled too many 1980s management textbooks and regard we plodders (or is it just me) as enemies of progress. Personally, I work at a university because I'm unemployable elsewhere it's a different, older model of cooperation. We're not chasing profits or churning out product. We have the space to nurture each other, though the walls (of TEF, of REF, of 'competitors', of fees, of metrics) are closing in. 

I won't be buried in a mausoleum with a permanent guard and eternal flame. There will be no Voleism, no Vole Prize, no Vole Street or cohorts of eager young hipsters doing PhDs in Mid to Late Vole Studies. But if one or two people are persuaded that they can do what I've done, or a little bit better because I've been kind or encouraging, it's good enough for me. 

Friday, 11 March 2016

To do… or Workers' Playtime, Academic Edition

Today's duties:
1. Write next week's lecture on The Duchess of Malfi, along with a seminar task and a forum discussion theme.
2. Individual tutorials with the first-year students who are writing about A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and About a Boy (did you see what I did there?).
3. Read another chapter of the PhD on Romanticism and Translation I'm examining next month.
4. Read the validation documents for a Greek university I'm external at.
5. Design two new modules.
6. Read my young cousin's A-level extended essay
7. Read my sister's best friend's MA essay because he's disputing the grade awarded.
8. Hold a budget meeting for this region's fencing committee. At least we have the unexpected luxury of too much money!
9. Come up with some funding applications for my (unsurprisingly stalled) research.
10. See one of my final-year dissertation students who is writing a fascinating piece on Queering Shakespeare in performance.
11. Find some way to gently encourage students to complete the NSS even though they're sick of being asked, don't see the point and most of us think it wouldn't pass muster on an undergraduate Research Methods module.

As you can see, all of these are interesting and many of them are important, but after yesterday's 13 hours at work – fast becoming normal – you might understand why I read Liz Morrish's latest with an appreciative eye. She and Kate Bowles should be put in charge of everything.

I'm going to need a soundtrack. On days like these, I go for minimalism, metronomic repetition or ethereality: Stereolab's Emperor Tomato Ketchup, some Kraftwerk, Harmonia, Can, Cluster, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Adams, Canto Ostinato,  Allegri, Esenvalds, Tallis, and so on. You'll notice that the vocals are in French, German and Latin: I can understand them if I pay attention but they're not so insistent that I'm distracted from work (Radio 4 had to go I'm afraid: either too interesting or too infuriating).

(I often put this on when I do a session on the turbo trainer).

I also have new music in by Julian Anderson with the London Philharmonic, The Gloaming and some Aphex Twin but I want to listen to them properly rather than have them on in the background.

See you on Monday.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

And just where do you think you've been?

Actually, I'm under no illusions that there's a Public out there thirsting for the latest pearls of wisdom from my keyboard, but one or two people have noted that it's been a couple of weeks since my last blogpost, and let's face it, that one was basically filler wasn't it? Has Vole hit the wall? Is it 'difficult 3978th album syndrome'? Has PV finally, blessedly, run out of opinions? Is it safe to venture outdoors once more? Is this, in fact, the liberation for which you have long since yearned?

Perhaps the answer is all of the above. Unlike Clarkson et al who as Stewart Lee points out, have,  controversial opinions for money 'to a deadline in the Sunday Times almost as if they weren't real', I can't churn them out like that. Many of my opinions are either overly-familiar to me and so (I assume) to you, or so predictable that they're fit only for ridicule. Occasionally I call a halt in my lectures when I realise that I've bored myself into a corner, and sometimes that happens on here too. It's not that there's a shortage of things to have an opinion about, it's often that I don't have a distinctive one: Lord preserve us from the 'hot take' which as far as I can see only fosters divisiveness and the crude magnification of minor differences. (Though I guess that constitutes a hot take in itself, and recent personal experiences lead me to believe that 'hot take' culture is now infecting the pursuit of academic research: too often those tasked with securing grant money for the institution are gently trying to warp research priorities, with the connivance of funding bodies and league tables which promote impact and visibility at the expense of depth.

I don't think blogging has had its day, and I'm grateful for the space in which to opine at reasonably length without needing to go through the peer-review process, but I'm finding Twitter useful for making links to interesting people, while the incredible pressure of work at the moment means that the space to think things through has entirely disappeared: blogging comes way down the list of priorities at the moment. It doesn't mean I'm not doing interesting things that some of you might find interesting. It's that I can't really talk about them, good and bad. I'm reading a PhD thesis I'm examining soon, for instance. I can't tell you what I think about it because that would be neither ethical or professional, but I can tell you that it's utterly fascinating and I'm learning a lot about the subject and some interesting new ways to view a field. Once it's all over and I can ask the author maybe I'll share some of the highlights for you. There was one quotation in there about Napoleon which seems particularly relevant to the EU Referendum campaign and the US election primaries though. Who wouldn't think of Trump, Rubio, Clinton, Cruz, Johnson, Cameron, Gove, Grayling, Farage and Co in these lines?

What else have I been up to? An lot of enormously enjoyable teaching: Hamlet and the Duchess of Malfi amongst them (working at a university is not at all like coping with the twisted, dark, suspicious, surveillance culture of Danish and Italian royal courts, obviously) but it's wonderful being able to immerse myself in extended texts like a PhD thesis and these plays. I'm completely exhausted but at the moment teaching is an absolute highlight. Admittedly the written work doesn't come in until next week, but every single class has been a joy so far.

What else? Well, I've been organising visiting speakers and finding interesting places to host them: on Monday Catherine O'Flynn and James Hannah are reading from and talking about their novels in the city's art gallery (March 14th, 6.00 p.m., free). There will be wine and cake (not free) and hopefully and audience which might not have considered walking into a university on a Monday night. Many more events coming. I'm also involved in the Birmingham Literature Festival (the gits held a 'breakfast meeting' in a bookshop one morning. I emerged from that considerably fatter and poorer, damn it. Like having a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in downtown Medellin. (Medellinistas: don't write in. I know your city has had a wonderful renaissance in recent years but all my cultural referents are decades out of date). I'm supervising a couple of PhDs and some very interesting undergraduate dissertations, and I've been to London on external examiner duties and stolen wholesale a lot of their ideas learned about fresh approaches to teaching and learning, then went down again to help plan a Festival of English which you should all either contribute to or come to. Also coming up is the Stafford Castle Open-Air Shakespeare: it's Othello this year and my colleague and I are once again writing the programme notes. It was lovely to be involved last year and we're hoping to really build on it.

We're also in the middle of rewriting our course structures (in both departments I work in). While there's an awful lot of bureaucracy involved and a certain amount of brick wall/head interface activity, it's rather lovely to be able to indulge in dreaming up whole new areas of teaching. In particular, the first-years will discover that all the world is indeed a stage, as I'll be getting them into a theatre with actors to learn the arts of acting, directing, producing and designing plays as well as interpreting and interrogating them. Sadly The Skinhead Hamlet will not be our first text. But one day…Then there are all the Governor activities, the course committees, the VLE assessment group, the union representation duties and the whole panoply of academic things. The one thing I haven't managed to do is any actual research recently, though I have been applying for funding which is close enough. I'm enjoying life enormously at the moment but something will have to give. I'm slowly recovering from a few months' Repetitive Strain Injury caused by work and the last thing I want is another bout.

In other news: isn't the new Suede album excellent? And the Cavern of Anti-Matter one.

Which is all basically a long and self-indulgent way of saying: I've been busy. But I'm back. Sporadically.