Three years ago we decided to set up a publishing arm for our long-established graphic design business. My husband Trevor Bounford (illustrator, artist and author) has been designing and creating books for over 45 years. With our shared interest in social history and the prospect of more ‘free’ time on my part after completing the PhD, we set up Gottahavebooks in 2015.
What we now have is very much a cottage industry. And that’s not just because we run the business from our Tudor cottage in a village near Cambridge. We like being small scale. For me this is especially appealing after many years of working in large organisations with highly rigid structures and politicised cultures. I’m loving the new freedom and flexibility of working independently as a writer, editor and micro-publisher.
Our publishing is driven by a desire to share people’s stories, and our titles and activities reflect this.
In 2015 Richard Houghton needed to publish the memories he had gathered from people who had attended Rolling Stones concerts in the 1960s. Richard and Trevor jointly devised a concept they named as ‘You Had To Be There’ and we set about getting Richard’s book to press in double-quick time. We also liaised individually with his 500 contributors, confirming their place in the book and keeping them up to date with the production. This was very time-consuming but worthwhile, and we were pleased to have helped Richard with his first publication.
Our second book, ‘Days of Sorrow, Times of Joy’ by Frances Clemmow (2016), is an extraordinary family memoire, interwoven with the grand picture of modern Chinese history from the late nineteenth century through to the Second World War. Trevor had previously assisted Fran with the design, layout and production of a self-published edition in 2012. We offered to publish a new extended edition as a way of helping Fran to share her story with a wider audience, and we were delighted when historian Michael Wood agreed to contribute a foreword. Professor Anthony Bradley describes the book as a,
‘living history, in which the actors in a far-reaching drama speak in their own words. We need not today endorse all aspects of the missionary enterprise, but readers of this impressive and enjoyable book will surely long remember the vivid scenes in which one family’s commitment enabled its members to play a part in events that have helped to shape our world.’
Our forth publication is an unexpected and delightful outcome of the research for the Heffers book. We’ll be announcing this quirky title over the next few weeks.
I’m currently editing another forthcoming Gottahavebooks publication, ‘The Singer’s Tale’ by Carol Grimes. This is Carol’s captivating story in her own words,
‘Forever entwined, my young and my old mind, the voices inside me that chatter and chide, encourage and rage, as I look both outwards and in with the curiosity of a benign, yet wary stranger.’
Born in 1944, Carol spent the late 1960s and ’70s living in a ‘so-called community of freaks, immigrants and photographers, artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers, drug dealers, models, fashionistas, groupies and hangers-on.’
Whilst giving talks on the history of Heffers of Cambridge, I’m reminded that many have memories of the firm. I enjoy sharing stories from the book and hearing anecdotes from members of the audience who were customers, authors, or employees.
Earlier this year, I received a communication from Sandor P. Vaci RIBA, who worked for the architects Austin Smith: Lord, at the time they were transforming Heffers’ Trinity Street premises into the radical new ‘University and General’ bookshop, opened by Lord Butler in 1970.
Sandor is kindly sharing his memories and images from the project, and I’m looking forward to meeting him later this year to hear more. A Hungarian born British architect who has lived in London since the 1956 Revolution, Sandor has many interests including cultural connections and sharing the public space.
He has put together a gallery of Budapest ‘portas’ (doors and doorways), from the city’s historic centre. As he says, the individually designed portas show astonishing variety, exuberance, originality and craftsmanship rarely found in other cities. It’s a lovely collection.
It’s interesting to note Sandor’s observation that the doorways into residential blocks were single entries: all the residents, servants, tradesmen, deliveries and rubbish removals passed through (no back door or tradesman’s entrance for them).
As I start to work on my next social history project, on college service in the twentieth century, I’m prompted to wonder if the college servants used the same entrances as everyone else.
My aim is to explore the notion of ‘service’, in the context of college, university and town communities in Cambridge. As Alex Saunders from the Cambridge Antiquarian Society said to me recently, it’s a huge topic. My husband, Trevor, says it sounds like another doctoral research proposal (my first – and only PhD, was on the topic of community inside higher education).
When opening the door to a new project, I like to begin by contemplating the broader questions and possibilities. For this topic, some of the questions are informed by my own direct experience of working in higher education and of researching the field. Here are a few:
What do we mean by ‘service’, by ‘being in’ service and by ‘being of’ service?
The condition of being a servant; the fact of serving a master?
The condition, station, or occupation of being a servant?
A particular employ; the serving of a certain master or household?
Performance of the duties of a servant; attendance of servants; work done in obedience to and for the benefit of a master?
To do, bear (one) service, to serve, attend on (a master)?
An act of serving; a duty or piece of work done for a master or superior?
An act of helping or benefiting; an instance of beneficial or friendly action; a useful office?
Waiting at table, supply of food; hence, supply of commodities, etc?
Provision (of labour, material appliances, etc.) for the carrying out of some work for which there is a constant public demand?
(with thanks to the OED)
What roles in this context would be classified as ‘college servants’?
Bedder; porter; gyp; butler; waiter; clerk; librarian?
Who is ‘serving’ whom?
Individuals serving individuals?
Individuals serving institutions?
Institutions serving society?
Society serving institutions?
Institutions serving individuals?
Individuals serving individuals?
What is the impact of the changing undergraduate population during the twentieth century?
The demographic and size of the population changed dramatically between 1900 and 2000.
What is the impact of changes in the role of colleges and universities in society during the twentieth century?
A complex and weathered terrain, the sector saw sweeping changes during this period.
A family in service
Like many who were raised in Cambridge, members of my family were ‘in college service’.
My Nanna, Ethel Lily Driver (1914-2006), lived in Christchurch Street and was a ‘bedder’ at Jesus College. Her mother, Lily Ethel Parsons (1895-1952) who lived in Ross Street, is listed on the 1939 Register as a ‘college help’.
My great-grandmother, Henrietta Saunders (1877-1971) who lived in the old dairy in Gold Street, was a ‘bedder’ at Queens College. Her husband, George Saunders (1873-1965) was a ‘general labourer’ who, as the story goes, once stood back to admire his own work on the roof of the Senate House.
The radio silence over recent months is mainly due to time spent on project managing the 2017 Cambridge History Festival on behalf of the Museum of Cambridge. Considering the vital role that the Museum played in my plea for Heffers stories, it seemed most fitting to work with the trustees, staff and volunteers on this event.
And it was a pleasure. I particularly love the fact that the festival is a community-led initiative. Caroline Biggs, the Creative Director, like so many of us, is passionate about local history. She’s currently researching the story of Daisy Hopkins, arrested in 1891 for ‘walking with a member of the University’. Caroline writes her own blog on Real Cambridge.
Immediately after the festival, I delivered a talk at University College London on the topic of university and campus bookshops. I also started work on editing the next Gottahavebooks publication, ‘The Singer’s Tale’ by jazz singer, Carol Grimes; an autobiography that is refreshingly free from affectation, infused with raw honesty and emotion. Out later this year, it will appeal to many, no doubt.
Now I’m easing back into my own research and writing, catching up with local history conversations. As I do so, here is lesson number three from doing an illustrated social history of Heffers of Cambridge. It is a brief reflection on the practicalities and pitfalls of collecting and recording stories, with extracts from ‘This book is about Heffers’.
The first lesson, ‘Possession is a delicate issue’ tackled the tricky issue of having a personal connection with the topic of the research, and what to do if you find yourself being told what to write!
The second, ‘Connecting up and creating a conversation’, set out the various networks and places that enabled me to reach many people who were willing to share their memories of the firm. I also refer to some of the sources for printed and digital materials. Links to all the networks and sources are provided.
Lesson 3: two small dogs, an exotic caged bird and wandering hands
Visits & gatherings It’s surprising how trusting people can be when it comes to arranging interviews, especially in their own homes. Though perhaps I’m also trusting, as I usually (but not always) go alone. If you’re planning to audio record or film the encounter, do let your host know beforehand. I always declare that the recording saves me having to take notes, and confirm that I will not share it with any third-party. I also have a release form which I ask people to sign. At the end of the Heffers research I had over fifty hours of audio recordings!
Make sure you have enough battery charge in your audio recorder. If you run out and don’t have spare batteries, remember the recording facility on your mobile phone, which can be a great back-up. This happened when I visited author, Pippa Goodhart, who had worked at Heffers from 1974 to 1986. On reading the completed book in November 2016, Pippa kindly told me,
‘You’ve achieved a wonderful balance between a thorough factual account and a very human, often heart-warming and amusing account, and I think you’ve absolutely nailed the character of the Heffers firm… how it was/is made-up of so many characters.’
This is exactly what I had hoped to do by blending stories from living memory and the desk research. I’m thrilled with Pippa’s feedback.
Also, when setting out on a visit, make sure you get all the letters and numbers in the right order when entering them into the SatNav. On one excursion I found myself heading towards Norfolk instead of Suffolk. Not a disaster maybe for one who once lived in North Norfolk and still craves the seaside, but embarrassing nevertheless. The detour meant I was late for my appointment.
The setting of the encounter can drastically affect the quality of the recording. The more challenging, from a recording perspective, included a gathering of several ladies in someone’s lounge, a one-to-one in the corridor of a bustling academic building, and a three-way encounter in someone’s home interspersed with contributions from two small dogs, and an exotic caged bird.
Many meetings involved tea, coffee, sausage rolls, cake and chocolate biscuits, as well as great stories. Much to my delight. It is no wonder that I have walk five miles a day.
The ladies mentioned above had worked as invoice girls in the top office at the Petty Cury bookshop in the 1950s and ’60s.
Some of their memories relate to the 1960 publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence. I like this one:
‘The girls had been told they were not to concern themselves with the content of the book. This may have been irresistible for some but they recall that they were more intrigued by books on forensic medicine with their graphic illustrations – occasionally giving themselves nightmares.’
Whilst I usually prepare some notes in advance of what topics I’d like to cover, I prefer the exchange to be more of an open conversation than a structured interview. See what comes up. What then emerges is arguably, more authentic. Sometimes a really significant memory may be shared after you’ve switched off the recorder and when you’re about to leave. If that happens, write it down the moment you get in the car. You can always go back to the person another time to check out the detail.
A particularly memorable visit, kindly arranged by retired bookseller, Clive Cornell, was to the home of his former colleague, Frank Collieson who at the time was fast approaching his ninetieth birthday. At the end of a most captivating afternoon with the two gentlemen, I went to shake Frank’s hand, and he gave me a big hug. As I walked back to my car I found myself in tears. I was most saddened to hear of Franks passing a few weeks later but pleased to learn that he did make that special birthday. I do treasure the meetings, however brief, and fondly recall Frank reminiscing about Heffers as he alternated between glasses of Bushmills whiskey and cups of tea. Much of Frank’s voice is in the book, not only from that afternoon but from a 1985 BBC Radio interview, his writings, and the extraordinary publicity materials he produced for the firm over many years. (The only time I ever broke my rule about sharing a recorded conversation with a third party was when I sent the recording of that afternoon to Frank’s daughters, after he had passed away. Jenny had been present at Frank’s house anyway, and had joined in the conversation.) Earlier this month I received a wonderful letter from a reader in Ireland who had known Frank, thanking me for putting his contribution into print.
I describe the memory cafe at the Museum of Cambridge in a previous post. The event was a pivotal moment, providing a tangible sense of place for the project.
As we all know, photographs can be a great tool for triggering memories.
This image, from a news report on the 1946 fire at Petty Cury, took Audrey and Peter Coleman back to the day they first met. Audrey was working in accounts for Miss King at the time and Peter, who worked for the Electricity Board, attended to the repairs. Audrey says,
“We didn’t know anything ’til we got to work and there’d been this awful fire. Miss King said we’d better first go back for a little while because the Police and everyone were there. We went to her mother’s house in Clarendon Street and then we came back and had to help clear up. All of us put turbans on our heads. There was all the smoke and an awful lot of damage. We had tarpaulins up and we had our national cash machines transferred to the basement. All the books were charred. It was horrible.”
Not all the damaged books were successfully removed, however. Over a decade later, Clive Cornell observed charred books on the shelves when he started work at Petty Cury as a shop assistant in 1958, and Frank Collieson saw the scorch marks still there in 1962.
If you’re collecting someone’s memories via a telephone call, do tell them if you want to record the conversation. I used the loud speaker facility on my mobile phone and recorded the conversation on my digital recorder. Not ideal but adequate.
Books, written accounts and emails
Robert Webb tracked down Sue Bradley’s fascinating 2008 oral history of the book trade via the British Library and I bought the last copy in stock. The book included accounts by Nicholas Heffer and bookseller Frank Stoakley, who served over sixty years with the firm and worked with my great-grandfather. Online you can find summaries of the transcripts. I didn’t have the time or resources to visit the Library and listen to the recordings, but the topics listed in the summaries were nevertheless very useful.
I had written accounts from several former Heffers staff, and from customers. For example, Shelley Lockwood, a Cambridge alumnus and oral historian who now works for the David Parr House project in Gwydir Street, kindly wrote about her experience of Heffers as a student, setting up an account and using her Heffer diary. And Mark Jones, a former Heffers employee who now lives in Scotland, wrote his own memories of working for Heffers Sound. Here is one of his stories from the book,
‘One year, on the last Saturday before Christmas, whilst putting a refund through for a Russian student, Mark accidentally swiped her debit card before first entering the amount to be refunded. Automatically, the till instantly refunded the first four digits of her card number. On the busiest and most profitable day of the entire year, Mark had given away £4,567. His manager was very understanding and the money was returned after a week or so (the student had to ask her bank to refund the refund). The cash register was reprogrammed to prevent a similar error from ever happening again.’
Communicating by letter
Don’t forget that some people still prefer to communicate by letter. for whatever reason. I found former Heffers director, Norman Biggs, via Bunty Heffer who kindly gave me his address. I wrote to Mr Biggs and subsequently arranged our three visits by letter. He had been in charge of Heffers Stationery and the Sidney Street premises for many years, and his stories were most illuminating. He recalled, for example, some of the characters from Cambridge academia,
‘One of the Proctors used to come into the Sidney Street shop early morning, soon after nine o’clock. He hadn’t combed his hair, he clearly hadn’t shaved and his pyjamas were sticking out from the bottom of his corduroy trousers. Another time, an academic customer ended up running out of Sidney Street screaming because they could not find a particular type of stationery file that fitted his exact requirements from the hundreds of options available.’
Mr Biggs also kindly loaned me a very grand portfolio, presented to him by Heffers on his retirement.
Social media has an important role to play, not just in reaching people but in gathering memories, no matter how fleeting. Remember, it’s a continuous feed on both Facebook and Twitter. People will react to an image or quotation. You will get more responses to something specific than to a general plea for stories. Publish your posts at different times of the day and always engage with the responses. It helps if you have a personal connection with the topic and if you share your own memories. Through the dialogue you will no doubt find people who are willing to talk further.
Diplomacy at all times
When collecting stories from living memory, you are very likely to hear anecdotes about people who are still alive. If someone is indiscreet or insensitive, don’t react. Move on to another topic.
Be aware, when writing up, that different people will recall the same incident in differently. It’s a good idea to cross-reference stories and double-check with all sources. Often, just a slight tweak can help to avoid any potential embarrassment or consternation.
A challenging topic in this case was the tricky issue of ‘wandering hands’. As I state in the book,
‘like many organisations certainly at the time [the 1960s], some male colleagues had what was then termed ‘wandering hands’, giving the phrase ‘hands on’ a somewhat different and unpleasant meaning, particularly for the ladies. It would not be appropriate to deny that this occurred, as so many have mentioned it when interviewed for this book, but it would also be inappropriate to name the alleged culprits, who are now long gone. Needless to say, for some ladies, taking dictation could be a hazardous chore, when they were trapped between the wall and their manager. For others, there were certain amenities best avoided, so not to give a gentleman colleague an opportunity to get too close. John Welch [General Manager] was made aware of certain issues on his arrival in 1964 and his response, not untypical of the time, was, “we all have our little idiosyncrasies”.’
And In a previous post I wrote about the challenges of having a personal connection with the topic. I share my thoughts on this blog with the aim of hearing what others think about a range of different topics, and this has been difficult one.
As I said in the previous post, the memories of Heffers are uncomplicated but the family association with the firm did cause a moment of anxiety. That moment came when a member of my family (who had not worked for Heffers) demanded that they be included in the book. As I mentioned in the post, I was told in no uncertain terms that Heffers is “our” family firm. It was because of this they felt they had a right to be included.
This not only created a rather delicate situation, it was deeply upsetting. It was not a matter of disagreeing with their opinion but of balancing that opinion alongside those held by others. Particularly those who had had a more direct involvement with the firm – who were inside that world. This is why, in the book, I acknowledged the claim about it being “our” family firm, whilst at the same time declaring that no doubt Heffers had engendered a similar sense of loyalty in many Cambridge families. I didn’t want to upset other families whose members had given many years of service to the firm, as well as my own. The story of Heffers belongs to everyone and no one. It doesn’t belong to the Heffer family or to any one family, and certainly not to mine.
Everyone’s experience is different and there is a need for diplomacy and sensitivity when collecting and sharing living memories. There were many things that came up in the interviews that I chose not to write about, for the sake of people’s feelings, and I took great care with what I did write.
At the end of the day, it’s a collection of different viewpoints. That’s what history is.
Lessons from doing an illustrated social history of Heffers of Cambridge
I don’t claim to be an expert on doing social history, or any sort of history, and I did have some terrific help with aspects of the Heffers project. My aim in this series of blog posts is to reflect on the experience and hopefully, by doing so, share some useful lessons for anyone who wishes to undertake a social history. I’d also love to hear from anyone who has advice to share, as this experience has left me wanting to do more, and I have a lot to learn!
The first post, Possession is a delicate issue tackled the tricky issue of having a personal connection with the topic of the research, and what to do if you find yourself being told what to write!
In this second post, I refer to the various networks and places that enabled me to reach many people who were willing to share their memories of the firm. I also refer to some of the sources for printed and digital materials, and will be expanding on exactly what I used in a later post. Links to all the networks and sources are provided, plus one or two publications written by authors whom I was fortunate enough to meet during the project.
Lesson number 2: Connecting up and creating a conversation
I may originate from Cambridge but having lived and worked in Norfolk until relatively recently, I had no network as such in the area, apart from family friends. Eve Stafford, who is featured in the book, was the first family friend to have a conversation recorded about her time at Heffers. Eve then facilitated my introduction to Heffers retirees, Marion & Dudley Davenport, Peggy Green and Audrey Coleman, who all have stories in the book.
It didn’t take long of course to identify other effective ways to reach those with memories of Heffers and start a wider conversation. On 23rd January 2016, Chris Elliott published a plea for stories with my contact details in the Cambridge News Memories section. Also, in January, I emailed Chris Jakes at the Cambridgeshire Collection at the Central Library, declaring my intention to carry out some desk research there. Chris responded with very useful and specific information on what the Collection held about the firm and the bookselling trade. Meanwhile, Robert Webb (who’s father worked for Heffers and who worked for the firm himself) found Becky Proctor (running the Mill Road History Project at that time), who suggested I put a plea via the Cambridge in the Good Ol Days Facebook Group. Robert Webb also contacted Fonz Chamberlain, the Cambridge Historian, who writes about Cambridge history and who owns a lot of memorabilia.
As it turned out, both Chris Jakes and Becky Proctor contributed stories for the book (Becky worked as a bookseller at Heffers in the early 1990s). The Facebook Group, run by Derek Smiley, was a great way to reach people with memories of Heffers. It really helped to have something interesting to say about the topic when exchanging thoughts on Facebook. This is where a personal connection or some local knowledge can be useful. Sharing memories, even brief reflections, is a great way to get a conversation going. It’s important to post regularly, whilst at the same time, not making a nuisance of oneself.
I wanted people to understand my motivation for writing the book, and to appreciate that I too, shared their enthusiasm and interest in the topic. To that end, I had already written about my interest in Heffers in my own blog, as early as February 2014, in Choosing books, living life. In fact, it was through this post that I met Robert Webb who must have been keeping an eye out for references to Heffers, as he contacted me after having seen the post. My next reference to Heffers was in Heffers & E.M. Forster, libraries, books & a Del Boy moment, followed by Heffers and the elusive bust, This book is about Heffers, Portrait of a bookseller: the pacifist, and Mr Reuben, Penguin Books and Lady Chatterley. I regularly shared the blog posts via Facebook and Twitter and made some really useful connections in doing so. Bookseller, Claire Brown, got in touch via my website (Claire’s stories are in the book) and I made a useful connection with Dr Samantha Rayner at University College London via Twitter. Samantha kindly facilitated my access to the Penguin Archive at the University of Bristol, and I’m planning to do a talk on Heffers for her Masters students in early 2017.
Whenever I refer to Heffers on Twitter, I use a hashtag. Over the past year, I found that if you googled Heffers or Heffers of Cambridge, images that I had shared, including the book cover of ‘This book is about Heffers’, which we had designed very early on (I shall be writing about the book layout and design later in this series), were fairly prominent. Along with images of large ruminants…
On 2nd February I attended the launch at Heffers of The Promise by Alison Bruce. I had met Alison a few months earlier when she kindly gave a talk at a writing group meeting that I had co-convened in our village. Alison, whose relationship with Heffers is shared in the book, invited me to attend her launch and it was there that I introduced myself to David Robinson (manager of Heffers), bookseller Richard Reynolds and retired bookseller Clive Cornell, who had kindly responded to the Cambridge News Memories plea. I subsequently had a meeting with David and Richard at the shop to tell them about my plans, and to ask if they had anything that may be useful. It turns out they did, including twenty years worth of staff newsletters, the Heffers publishing diaries and other fascinating memorabilia. Much later, in April, I attended another book launch for Timed Out by Barbara Lorna Hudson. Kate Fleet at Heffers had given Barbara my contact details, as she had worked at Heffers as a student in the early 1960s. I attended the launch, bought the book and not only enjoyed it but have retained my contact with Barbara who, as I learned later, was embarking on a second career as a fiction writer after working as an Oxford academic.
Also, in February I emailed the Cambridge University Alumni Office, asking for stories. By then I had written an Advance Information Sheet, which provided a useful summary of the proposed book. I received a swift response and the Alumni team used social media to reach out to Cambridge alumni all over the world. And I emailed Mike Petty, renowned local historian, and he not only agreed to meet up for a chat over coffee but also sent a list of useful references from his own ‘Chronicle of Cambridge News’, a terrific digital database of Cambridge events and stories.
Whilst virtual communication via Facebook and Twitter is great, never underestimate the value of getting together face-to-face. A pivotal moment in the Heffers project was a memory café at the Museum of Cambridge, on Friday 26th February. The Museum, located near the city centre, provides a tangible sense of place and plays a vital role in bringing people together for exchange and reflection. At this event I met members of the Heffer family and Heffers staff, past and present. David Robinson had always wanted to meet the Heffer family, and this was his chance, also. I brought posters and materials to the café and we had a small display. People like to look at photographs and memorabilia, which can of course trigger memories. Others also brought artefacts, including William Heffer who brought the original lease on the Petty Cury bookshop from 1896 –how exciting!
Hilary Cox-Condron at the Museum, made a terrific six-minute film of the memory café, starring Bunty Heffer, now aged 96 years. I was impressed with how relatively easy it was for Hilary to create the film on her mobile phone and I’m planning to use film much more in 2017 to share stories and images from my research and from Gottahavebooks publications.
Early on in the project, having received a communication from Kate Fleet, Heffer’s very enterprising Events Manager, asking if I would be interested in launching the book at Heffers, I had an opportunity to fix a publication date. Thus, I duly agreed with Kate we would launch the book at Heffers on 10th November 2016.
Now I had a DEADLINE.
Better get on with collecting and recording the stories.
How I did that is the topic of the next blog post.
Lessons from doing an illustrated social history of Heffers of Cambridge
One day, back in February this year, whilst striding down Trumpington Street after spending an afternoon at the Cambridgeshire Collection, I felt a rush of pure elation and was reminded of some advice a friend had recently shared on my future direction after finishing the PhD. She said ‘do what gives you joy’.
Since that time the experience of researching, writing and publishing ‘This Book Is About Heffers’ has given me mountains of joy – as well as anxieties, challenges, frustrations, and sadness. There were many things to tackle. For example, the pros and cons of having a personal connection to the topic, finding people willing to share their memories, using digital networks without making a nuisance of oneself, making the most of a face-to-face gathering, visiting people in their homes (and finding their homes in the first place!), recording conversations (with rather odd, and sometimes peripheral, sound effects), finding myself dreaming about it all, and deploying diplomacy at all times.
I don’t claim to be an expert on doing social history, or any sort of history, and I did have some terrific help with aspects of the project. My aim in this series of blog posts is simply to reflect on the experience and hopefully, by doing so, share some useful lessons for anyone who wishes to undertake a social history. I’d also love to hear from anyone who has advice to share, as this experience has left me wanting to do more, and I have a lot to learn!
Lesson number 1: Possession is a delicate issue
It’s not obligatory to have a personal connection with the topic but if you do, it can help, especially at the beginning when you’re trying to explain why you’ve embarked on such a major undertaking. And even when the word is out, (people said ‘she’s writing a book about Heffers’) you’ll need to revisit that special connection from time to time. For me, there were many quiet moments in the study when I thought about my family members who had worked for the firm. It sounds whimsical but I sensed their approval of the legacy I was trying to create and it gave me an inner confidence. It was, and still is, a nice feeling.
A personal connection can also, however, create a bit of a dilemma, as it did with this project. The book was inspired by my childhood memories of visiting Heffers Children’s bookshop every Saturday morning, and of course, by my family’s association with the firm. The memories are uncomplicated but the family association caused a moment of anxiety, which I will explain, as I suspect the scenario is not uncommon.
I hail from a line of Cambridge booksellers, bakers, college bedders and bus cleaners. Members of my family clocked up 120 years of service with Heffers, starting with my great-grandfather, Frederick Anstee, employed by William Heffer in 1896 when the Petty Cury bookshop was first opened. Frederick, along with bookseller F. J. Sebley, was one of the first employees at Heffers, at least on record. Since then of course, hundreds of people have worked for the firm and indeed there have been periods when Heffers employed well over 500 people at any one time across the bookselling, stationery and printing divisions. There are several stories in the book about the different ways in which people got started at Heffers, and how they fared. Frederick, who rose to become Head of Science, sadly died suddenly in 1944 whilst still in service.
The part that Frederick played in helping to build the firm is rightly something to be proud of. That pride is boosted by a letter from a family friend, Duncan Littlechild (bookseller with Heffers for fifty-four years), written in 1968 on the death of my great-grandmother, Frederick’s widow. In expressing his condolences, Littlechild declared that it was Frederick, along with Ernest and Frank Heffer, who ‘founded’ the firm. This of course is his opinion, his ‘selfish feeling’ as he describes it, about a friend whom he described as an, ‘oh such perfect father who lived for his family’. After careful consideration, I decided not to quote this in the book. Another of his ‘selfish feelings’, too indelicate to include, was his opinion that Ernest and Frank were, ‘the only two Heffers who were worth more than a pound a week.’
Littlechild’s letter wasn’t actually the issue that caused the ethical quandary as I wrote the book, though it probably contributed. In late July, I was told in no uncertain terms that Heffers is “our” family firm and that this must be stated in the book. This created a rather delicate situation. Whilst I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feeling, I wasn’t comfortable with making such a claim. Nor was I comfortable with being told what to write. I don’t mind being asked to take something into consideration, and in my work I do try to be sensitive to people’s feelings – and to my own. And so, when this exchange occurred, a number of questions, some of which I’d already been grappling with, came to the fore.
How do you balance personal involvement with a dispassionate telling of the story?
Perhaps it’s like doing sociology, you must hold your connection up to the light so that it can be seen and acknowledged. I did include a narrative about my family’s association with the firm and indeed quoted letters from members of the Heffer family who clearly had high regard for Frederick. I also acknowledged the claim about it being “our” family firm, whilst at the same time declaring that no doubt Heffers had engendered a similar sense of loyalty in many Cambridge families.
Who does the story belong to?
I’m collecting, curating and interpreting people’s memories that are given freely and openly. The history of Heffers, as with other histories, is not in some exclusive ownership. It lives in people’s minds and it’s evolving. The story belongs to everyone and no one. It doesn’t belong to the Heffer family or to any one family, and certainly not to mine.
Who has responsibility for the publication?
As the author, and the publisher in this instance, I have the responsibility. I may have an aversion to the phrase, ‘my book’ (for reasons I need not explain here), but it is my doing. I initiated the project, took control and decided what to write. I was sensitive to people’s feelings, I checked stories and quotations and I made changes accordingly. I did my best to get things right and I didn’t want anyone telling me what I should write. In that sense, perhaps is has to be ‘my book’.
The next post will be about finding people with stories to share.
THIS BOOK IS ABOUT HEFFERS, published on 21st October 2016, aims to convey something of the story, style and character of the Cambridge phenomenon that is Heffers, the bookshop that is ‘known all over the world’. This post introduces Reuben Heffer (a key figure in the history of Heffers), and his association with Penguin Books.
Employees of the firm generally referred to members of the Heffer family as ‘Mr’ Sidney, ‘Mr’ Ernest etc. and the ladies as ‘Miss’, although this convention had mostly fallen out of use by the mid-1970s. Reuben George Heffer (1908-1985) is still sometimes referred to as ‘Mr Reuben’.
Younger son of Ernest and grandson of William Heffer (the firm’s founder), Reuben was educated at the Perse School, Cambridge, where he acquired an interest in modern languages, which he read at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. He also read economics. Having trained at the London School of Printing, he joined the firm’s bookselling side after the untimely death of his brother, Arthur. In the Second World War he joined the RAF, serving in flight control and as a squadron leader. He took charge of the bookshop in Petty Cury in 1948 and was Chairman of the company from 1959 to 1975. He was on the council of the Booksellers Association, of the 1948 Book Trade Committee, of the Society of Bookmen, and of the Sette of Odd Volumes. John Welch, appointed by Reuben as the first general manager in 1964, described him as a man of considerable charm; unfailingly generous of his time and quiet advice: ‘Honest and caring, he was above all a liberal man. Though holding firm views, he never inflicted them on anyone. His great talent, giving him abiding pleasure, was to encourage success in those younger than himself.’
Reuben was largely responsible for the continued existence of the Cambridge Review from 1939 and his other activities included serving as a magistrate for twenty-seven years, and with the Marriage Guidance Council, the Trustee Savings Bank, and the Cambridge Preservation Society. The Open University awarded him an honorary MA degree in 1979. Bookseller, Frank Collieson, in Remembering Reuben, wrote that within the book trade, while eschewing office, Reuben was undoubtedly influential, his authority being genuinely modest and understated. Of Reuben he declared:
‘It was a joy to watch him open a book. No spine-cracking for Reuben: the book, whatever its format, would sit easily in his left hand as if measured for it: while the fastidious fingers of his right would turn the pages slowly and without injury from the top.’
Over the years Reuben had built such a good relationship with Penguin Books that he was invited to be a contributor to the publication Penguin’s Progress 1935–1960, a celebration of the publisher’s Silver Jubilee, issued in 1960. He was in good company; other contributors ‘from the outside’ were Compton Mackenzie, Michael Grant, Elliott Viney and Richard Hoggart.
In 1957, thanks to Reuben’s ingenuity, Heffers had opened the first bookshop in the UK
dedicated to Penguin and its associated paperback brands, located at 51 Trumpington Street, Cambridge (on the corner with Downing Street). This was something of a coup for Heffers in the Cambridge bookselling trade, and a key Heffers rival was not at all pleased, as will be revealed in THIS BOOK IS ABOUT HEFFERS.
Nineteen-sixty was also the thirtieth anniversary of the death of author D.H. Lawrence, and, to mark the occasion, Penguin Books decided to publish seven of his titles, including the unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Charged under the Obscene Publications Act of 1959 for doing so, the publisher was put on trial at the Old Bailey, represented by Michael Rubinstein, ‘the book trade’s lawyer’ and defended by Gerald Gardiner QC. On 2nd November 1960, Penguin was acquitted when the jury passed a ‘not guilty’ verdict. In the end, Reuben, who had been listed as a possible witness, was not one of the thirty-five called.
Penguin went on to sell three million copies of Lady Chatterley over the next three months and Heffers contributed to those sales. Prepared for a favourable verdict, the invoice office at Heffer’s Petty Cury bookshop had already typed invoices, so they were ready to go out with the orders as soon as the trial was over. Bookseller, Dudley Davenport recalls the big rush for copies at Petty Cury, “the place was packed out”. Naturally, the recently-opened Penguin shop was hectic too. In his published memoirs, Michael Black, an editor at Cambridge University Press at the time, recalls looking from his office down into the street on publication day:
‘Heffer’s Penguin Bookshop was directly opposite my window, and on that morning there was a very long queue. There still used to be errand-boys in those days, and more than one had taken time off to join the queue and was standing there with his bike. I reflected mildly on the literary tastes and interests of errand-boys – but I suspect they weren’t any different from other people’s.’
THIS BOOK IS ABOUT HEFFERS contains previously unpublished images of the Heffer’s Penguin Bookshop in Cambridge at the time it opened.
There may well have been a Heffers board meeting to discuss the question of stocking the book, although clearly by the time of the trial the firm was in favour. As William Heffer says today of his father, Reuben, “I’m sure he would have been perfectly happy to stock it.”
Norman Biggs, former director of the stationery division reflects, “The view taken was that you couldn’t censure, and certainly not in a place like Cambridge.”
In THIS BOOK IS ABOUT HEFFERS, former employees recall reactions to the publication.
THIS BOOK IS ABOUT HEFFERS by Julie E Bounford will be available from Heffers of Cambridge, from November 2016.
 Founded 1878 in London by the bookseller Quaritch, the Sette today remains a small social club dedicated to book collecting, printing history, and bibliophily.
 Welch, J. (2004) ‘Heffer, Reuben George (1908–1985)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press.
 The Cambridge Review (A Journal of University Life and Thought), was first published in 1879. It continued for many years after the Heffers acquisition and, after 119 volumes in total, finally ceased publication in 1998.
Bryan needed the paper that he’d left in his office at Greystone. He took one more look through his briefcase, despite knowing full well that the paper was still on his desk. He could visualize exactly where he had left it, next to the bright yellow desk tidy his colleague, Wendy, had given him for Christmas. Downloading the paper online was pointless – what Bryan really needed were the crucial, yet elusive, notes he had scribbled on a hard copy the day before his departure. He had been away for almost a month now, and was preparing for his third consecutive international keynote. It was no good. Barbara, his wife and veteran Greystone researcher, would just have to go in and retrieve it.
Following his call, Barbara made her way to the Social Science building. Standing in the corridor, she felt light headed and wheezy. She couldn’t decide what was making her feel sick. Perhaps it was the fumes from the emulsion. The breezeblock walls, it seemed, had been liberated from their bleak façade; a façade keenly unobserved by Barbara day in and day out for almost four decades, until now. How white they looked. How bright and clean. Equally, it could be the glue from the newly fitted plush blue carpet showered in tiny gold crest motifs. Soft underfoot and very unlike the brown rush matting that always so neatly soaked up the drips from spent umbrellas on rainy days.
Barbara planned to be quickly in and out but there seemed to be problem with the lock. As she stood there trying not to think about being sick, she tried the key again and then fumbled around in her bag, feeling flustered. She couldn’t believe it wasn’t the right key yet felt compelled to look for another. ‘Damn’, she said to herself, out loud. ‘He really has given me the wrong one’. She put her bag down and phoned Bryan. She’d no idea what time of day it might be at his end.
‘You do have the right key, don’t you?’ asked Bryan.
‘Yes,’ snapped Barbara
‘The one with the blue tab from my spare set’
‘Yes. It doesn’t work,’ said Barbara
‘Have you tried wriggling it?’
‘Yes, of course I’ve tried wriggling it.’
‘You need to push harder. It sticks sometimes.’
‘Bryan, I know how to open a door. The key doesn’t fit.’
‘Well, that’s ridiculous. How are we going to get the bloody paper? I can hardly come back from Brazil. Wait! Wendy will have a key. She’s always got spares.’
Hanging up, Barbara shuffled down the corridor, heading for Wendy’s office. She turned the corner and stopped. Her progress was halted by a clear glass wall painted with three towering white letters which she read out loud, ‘HUB.’
Inside there was a sign hanging from the ceiling, which read: ‘Learning & Teaching Hub: the key to your success.’
Walking through a roped off section which reminded her of the post office but without the queue – there was no-one else around – she reached a pristine counter, behind which sat a smart young girl who welcomed Barbara with a big smile,
‘Hi, how can I help you?’
‘I need to access Bryans’ office and he’s given me the wrong key. There’s a master key. Could I borrow it?’
The girl looked puzzled. ‘No office here. You can see we’re open plan… whose office?’
Barbara glanced back out into the corridor. ‘Out there… second door on the right?’
The girl shook her head.
‘Where’s Wendy? She’ll know what I’m talking about,’ said Barbara
‘Sorry, there’s no one called Wendy working here.’
‘But I really need to get into Bryan’s office.’
Perplexed, the girl called a colleague over and asked her if she knew the whereabouts of a Wendy and also, an office belonging to someone called Bryan.
‘Ah yes,’ said the second woman. ‘Do you mean that rather quaint elderly gentleman who used to pop in and chat with Wendy before she left? He did have an office here but that was cleared out a couple of weeks ago. It’s now the Hub storeroom. There were some old papers but I think they were put in one of the PGR cupboards.’
Barbara, feeling even more flustered and not quite knowing how to react, just wanted to get the paper and leave.
‘Is the PGR room still there?’ She was beginning to wonder.
‘Yes, of course.’
Barbara made her way out of the Hub, beyond what had been Bryan’s office, and stood outside the PGR room. To her frustration, she didn’t have the combination for the keypad.
Back at the Hub she was told that as she wasn’t a postgraduate researcher, she couldn’t have the number. Being the partner of an internationally renowned professor who supervises postgraduate researchers didn’t cut any ice.
As several observed in conversations for my research on ‘This book is about Heffers’, the bookshop was a haven for many interesting characters.
R D Littlechild (1889-1974)
Sidney Heffer, son of the firm’s founder, wrote in the 1950s,
‘It would be impossible to detail the numerous errand boys, apprentice boys and assistants who entered our employment but mention may here be made of a few who coming to us in almost the beginnings of really vital things have cast in their lot with us and stayed the course.’
Gratitude is sent out to a few who could tell the story of Heffers from a different point of view, including R D Littlechild, appointed as bookselling apprentice in 1903, as recorded in the first company Minute Book,
‘D. Littlechild, entered apprentice for 5 years at 2/- per week on April 25th 1903’
Duncan Littlechild, a strong pacifist who disapproved of Churchill, actively discouraged customers at Petty Cury from buying Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples in the 1950s,
‘you don’t want to buy that old rogue’, he would say.
Considered as old school by his colleagues at this time, he would often be observed as ‘kowtowing’ to academic customers on the telephone.
During the First World War Littlechild was a prisoner of war. In November 1917, The Cambridge Independent reported,
‘LANCE-CORPL. R. D. LITTECHILD – Mr. E. Littlechild, 2, Park-parade, has received the following letter from an officer regarding his son, Lance-Corpl. R. D. Littlechild of the Royal Scots: “I regret to be the bearer of news which will cause you great anxiety and suspense, but your son, Lance-Corpl. R. D. Littlechild, went into an attack on the 2nd of this month, and it has been so far impossible to ascertain anything definite regarding his fate. None of the company who arrived saw him hit, but several fell in to the hands of the enemy. You will have to wait patiently, perhaps several months, before hearing news. He was a cheerful and brave soldier, and a highly efficient N.C.O.” Lance-Corpl. Littlechild had been in France since June. He was formerly employed by Messrs. Heffer and Son, Petty-cury.’
Thankfully, he survived and returned to his job at Heffers to continue his distinguished 54-year career. Like many booksellers, Littlechild had great wit and a fantastic memory for faces and books. He was outstanding in debating circles and enjoyed debates against Cambridge undergraduates. On his retirement from the firm in 1957, the Cambridge Press reported that generations of publishers’ travellers had called on him and he always liked to remember the more leisurely days of the early part of the century when the traveller would call in his silk hat and with his bag of books pushed on a barrow from the station by an outside porter.
This post is dedicated to those who went over the top.
‘This book about Heffers’ will be published 1st November 2016, and will be available from Heffers Bookshop, Trinity Street, Cambridge, UK
This book is about Heffers: the bookshop that is known all over the world
William Heffer, William Heffer,
Bowes and Bowes, Bowes and Bowes,
Galloway and Porter, Galloway and Porter,
Deighton Bell, Deighton Bell
This rhyme, sung to the tune of Frère Jacques, harks back to a golden age of bookselling in the early to mid-twentieth century Cambridge when the city was served by several excellent establishments, each with their own distinctive history and character. This book tells the story of just one; Heffers of Cambridge, founded by William Heffer in 1876. As a bookseller Heffers enjoyed that golden age. And as a bookseller Heffers was and still is, ‘known all over the world’. What may not be known worldwide, however, is that Heffers has always been a stationer and was once a prolific publisher and printer. In 1933 ‘Mr Ernest’ (son of William) wrote to The Times, challenging the notion of Heffers bookshop as a craft emporium.
TO THE EDITOR OF THE TIMES
Sir, – It seems almost ungrateful to criticize such a delicious jeu d’esprit, and we would not do it, except for one reference you make to Oxford. You say that Heffer’s of Cambridge is a bookshop known even to Oxford men, and then go on to pack that bookshop with “little crafts.” Mentally one conjures up visions of wool and of pewter, of seagrass stools and barbola, and the like, on intimate terms with and indeed almost dominating all that is best, and a great deal that is less than best, in the whole realm of books.
Now, Sir, Cambridge by experience knows better; but Oxford, knowing chiefly by repute, might be led to have a wrong conception of what our bookshop really is. May we beg of you to correct this possible misconception before it spreads too deep for correction?
The Efferini Craftelli is carried on at our Sidney Street branch, whilst Heffer’s books is in the Cury: and come there who will, they shall find neither frills nor furbelows: they shall hunt without success for wool and the silk and the straw that delight the heart of woman. The only craft “worked” there is the craft of books.
Director, W. Heffer and Sons, Limited,
3 and 4, Petty Cury, Cambridge
Published in The Times, 20th January 1933
Whilst, arguably, the impressions held by Oxford men or what delights the heart of woman may not concern us, it is a fact that the ‘bookseller’ and ‘stationer’ trades are from the same stable. Chrimes, in his 2012 portrait of Cambridge, tells us that Cambridge University licensed sellers of books to work from ‘fixed stations’, initially in churches or outside their north and south walls. As one of the few stationary trades, the bookselling trade was considered superior to that of itinerant pedlars. The Latin word, ‘stationarius’ had been used to mean a trader with a fixed place of business, but booksellers secured this term for themselves. The ‘e’ in stationers was an eighteenth century derivation. Oldfield, on the other hand, in his 1944 article on Cambridge and its Stationers, insists the derivation rests rather on the metaphysical translations, ‘that which is established by custom’ … than the literal rendering of a ‘place of abode’ or ‘station’.
In a similar fashion to E. W. Heffer’s eloquent retort, I aim to convey something of the style and character of the Cambridge phenomenon that is Heffers. The stories revealed in the forthcoming book, kindly shared by eighty past and present employees and customers, will testify to the many sides of the firm.
‘This books is about Heffers’ will be published on 1st November 2016.
I’m now writing in earnest and over the coming months will share some of the stories as we lead up to the publication and launch of the book at Heffers in Trinity Street, Cambridge, in November 2016.
Meanwhile, an image has come to light of a bust of the firm’s founder, William Heffer.
The image is contained in an envelope with “Ralph Heffer” written upon it in Stephen Heffer’s handwriting. Ralph (1893-1974), son of Harry Heffer and grandson of William, was not involved with the firm but according to his family, enjoyed working with his hands and would possibly have had a go at creating something like this. The Heffer family were not aware of the bust and we cannot ask Stephen who sadly died in 1996.
I hope the bust has not been destroyed and would be delighted to hear from anyone who knows of its whereabouts. Perhaps it is in someone’s house. My parents have a bust of my grandfather, Sidney Saunders. Or perhaps it is nestling in the corner of a college room or library somewhere. William had good relations with many Cambridge establishments and rented the shop at Petty Cury from Emmanuel College. Even if the bust has been destroyed, it would be nice to know who created it and when.
Here is a brief biography of Stephen Heffer, a gifted artist who worked in the family firm.
Stephen John Heffer(1948-1996)
Son of John Heffer and great-grandson of William, Stephen worked with the firm for fifteen years from 1971. He assisted Managing Director, John Welch, on the bookselling and publishing side, and played an instrumental role setting up the Children’s Bookshop and the Bookworm Book Club. He also made regular visits abroad both in Europe and America, retaining very useful personal contacts with librarians overseas. His travels were noted regularly in the staff newsletter, Trinity Street News and he managed the Grafton Centre shop when it first opened in 1983. An artist, Stephen decided in 1986 to leave the firm in order to train at the Camberwell School of Arts and at Winchester. He then worked as an artist in Barcelona, London and Norfolk and he died in London in 1996. An exhibition of his paintings was held at the Sidney Street Gallery in 1998, providing, as described in the brochure, a unique opportunity for friends and visitors to view the breadth of his vision.
If you recognise the bust and know where it can be found, or if you simply know the story behind its creation, please do get in touch:
I enjoyed Deborah Harrison’s blog about the challenges and inspirations of her New Year’s resolution. Like Deborah, I’m trying to walk everyday. And like Deborah, there’s still so much I want to do with my life:
I recently wrote a short piece for a non-fiction course with Midge Gillies at Madingley Hall, Cambridge. We were asked to write about a pair of shoes.
A well-trodden testimony
We’re pleased to be part of a long accomplished line. We appreciate that our kind must be renewed on a regular basis. No doubt Julie has lost count of how many forerunners we have; how many she’s worn in, and then out, since 1975 when she started upon what would have been described as the running habit of a lifetime, only the habit now appears to be dwindling.
We’re proud to have ancestors that made the grade. We look up to those who’ve achieved the seemingly impossible. Crossing the finishing line after the ultimate distance, not once but twice. We’re proud to wear Julie’s triumphant red laces on ten K treks, a distance that would have been classed as modest in comparison to a marathon but is now no longer attempted.
We’re content to take a daily stroll that’s not too taxing. It’s not that we don’t want to live up to our name. On close inspection, our irregularities signify the extensive use that we have had, borne down by Julie’s increasingly uneven gait that at one time would have been declared perfect but is now favouring left over right.
We’re relieved to bypass the fields and the mud. We have dirt ingrained in our treads and we’re grey, not white. Julie put us through the washer after a January park run so that our metallic strips may still flash like new. The prospect of a cross-country route through farms and rivers, which at one time would have been exhilarating, is now rather daunting.
We’re delighted to see the sun when we leave the house. We know the spirits can be lifted by a sky that beckons the spring. Previously, the necessity of preparing for a special race has taken Julie out in all weathers, temperatures from minus five to plus thirty. An icy, fourteen-mile slog that would have been taken in one’s stride, need now no longer be contemplated.
We’re not afraid to go off the beaten track. We understand how being solitary can open up space for contemplation. But once, in the twentieth mile, away from anywhere and anyone, Julie ran out of fuel and had to phone for a pick up. No matter what distance, training alone would have been the preferred option and now, whilst it’s good to get away, it’s also good not to be too far from home.
We’re grateful to welcome a new sense of tranquillity. We know how much courage it takes to break away and seek out a new life. For Julie, meeting John – whilst running –was a mixed blessing. It took a sustained effort to leave him behind and at the finish, much more than endorphins were released. Pressing on regardless of pain would once have been normal, and now we see how right it was to take a different route.
These running shoes, aged 3, belong to Julie Bounford, aged 54.
How are you getting on with your New Year’s resolution?
‘We are not just ranked in the top; we are in the top 20 ranking’
In writing my PhD thesis on the topic of the idea and experience of academic community, I followed Andrew Sparkes’ less traditional approach and produced three fictional vignettes, aimed a revealing elements of academic life within a fictional setting. All three pieces illustrate the institutional culture of contemporary higher education, or as observed, it’s brutality and crassness. They also illustrate the day-to-day lives of the research participants. Bryan (an emeritus professor) is subject to a surprise move as, in his absence, his office (and his status) is eradicated; Jonathon (an academic leader) introduces a new member of staff to a different way of meeting the team, and the Vice-Chancellor gives an address that is steeped in the language of excellence that pervades the institutional discourse, a language from which there is no escape.
The Vice-Chancellor’s address, given below, is made up from phrases selected from the official corporate narrative of the University of Greystone, the site of the research. The confidence of the institutional discourse is emblematic of the grand narrative that tends to be a strong feature of universities today.
Greystone itself is included as a player in the research, with an articulated position in relation to idea of community. The institution is given a voice by the selection and presentation of corporate documents, including a number of corporate plans. Thirty-one letters from the Vice-Chancellor to all university staff were also analysed. Written in the first person, the letters reveal something about the character of the Vice-Chancellor as a person, through the way in which he chooses to convey his message, his observations and the language he uses. Through them he appears to be speaking directly to the staff and is creating an impression of sharing an almost intimate perspective on what is happening. The (not so) fictional address below, however, is less intimate and evokes what Readings described as the ‘University of Excellence’.
The Vice-Chancellor of Greystone gives an address.
‘Let me state at the outset that it is our leadership that is at the forefront of an outstanding reputation. The major contributions we shall make will undoubtedly be our greatest impact. Our particular strength is that we are well equipped for the pursuit of excellence. We are agenda setting internationally, avowedly ambitious and world-leading due to exceptional strengths that make us world-class. Being among the best with our high-quality, high-achieving and highest standards, which are undeniably of the highest quality and thereby market-leading at a high-level. This high-class and high-impact status must be the highest possible. Our highest ambitions, driven by the highest calibre leadership, enable the highest achievements and therefore the highest possible global influence. Inevitably this highest possible performance from our high performing team ensures a high academic engagement. From such a high base we can gain an edge. Our standards will be ratcheted up, supported by a long and proud history with its international distinction making us excellent in our excellence. This excellent achievement, regarded by all as an exemplar of good practice, is not just exemplary but is regarded as internationally excellent. Being internationally recognised, and being internationally aware, our international significance ensures us the strongest international position. Such international recognition of our extraordinary potential keeps us firmly in the top, in the top flight and on the top tier. And we are not just ranked in the top; we are in the top 20 ranking. Recognised as globally strong, the University excels and we can contribute equally with the best universities in the world. And this enviable reputation delivers an exceptional education, and with excellent research our excellent achievement is second to none. Building on the successes, which put us well within the world top 100, our intellectual power and influence obliges us to play a leading role. Our consistent top-20 ranking is an outstanding contribution, which is ranked in the top quartile. Being successful, inevitably there is public good flowing from what we do. This public good ensures a strong culture and our pioneering work in this area is a powerful combination, and a powerful platform. We are, simply, inspiring and innovative.’
What phrases would you suggest to make this excellent address more excellent?
Heffers & E.M. Forster, libraries, books & a Del Boy moment
As I eagerly anticipate a period of desk research at the Cambridgeshire Collection in the Central Library next week, I recall the times I’ve used libraries in various locations over the years, for a myriad of reasons.
My current project is a social history of the long established Cambridge Heffers Booksellers, Stationers and Printers, to be published this autumn. I’m particularly excited about this due to the family association with the firm, which began with my great-grandfather’s employment as a boy at the end of the nineteenth century.
‘One lad was anything but a bright specimen – practically uneducated and from a miserable home.’ William Heffer helped the lad, ‘by insisting that he should write in a copy book and work out simple sums each night, bringing the results to his employer the next morning. The boy profited by this strange tuition, so much so that he eventually became head assistant in the science department at Petty Cury – no mean achievement.’ (a 1952 biography of William Heffer 1843-1928, by Sidney Heffer, presented to Heffer’s staff, ‘With the Author’s Compliments’)
The ‘boy’ was my great-grandfather, seen here sitting at his desk.
I’m also thoroughly enjoying the research conversations with former employees, customers, authors and academics about their own memories of the firm. I must admit it’s a labour of love.
Do you have a Heffers story you’d be willing to share? If so, please do drop me a line via email@example.com or see the project background on the website –
One service Heffers provided was the valuation of libraries for probate. Heffers also bought libraries to sell through their second-hand and antiquarian department. A family friend, Eve Stafford, who worked for Heffers, recalled the time when the firm valued E.M. Forster’s library after his death in 1970. Not long after, Eve left Heffers to work for King’s, Forster’s college and home for many years.
In my 2014 blog post, ‘Choosing books, living life’, I wrote about the Saturday morning library routine and how I treasured the time with my children at the library.
Where did I hide from those higher education Alan Sugar wannabes, the chequered suited troopers of Enterprise who loudly proclaimed that profit is king?
Where did I find solace for a day as I regained my composure after an absurd contretemps with Trevor?
Neil Gaiman said libraries are about freedom, ‘Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.’
For me, the appeal of the library most definitely has an affective dimension; an emotional attachment that doesn’t exist for some of the other places I may have retreated to in troubled times such as cafés, hotel lobbies, sports centres, galleries and museums. I guess museums come the closest. Museum artefacts, like books, bring different worlds and perspectives to bear on the problem I’m grappling with. Like the books, I don’t have to examine them intently to seek the answers. I just know they’re there, giving the long view informed by lives that have been lived over tens, hundreds, thousands of years. They remind me that I’m not the first to face this problem (whatever it is), nor will I be the last.
Perhaps that’s why I’ve been an inveterate reader and keeper of biographies and memoires. I feel the presence of the lives I’ve observed through other people’s interpretations; people such as Iris Murdoch, D.H. Lawrence, Frida Kahlo, Tony Judt, Jennie Lee, Ada Lovelace, Lorna Sage, Zelda Fitzgerald, John Lennon, Augustus John, Vincent Van Gogh, Bernard Shaw, The Brontes, Elizabeth I, Thomas Hardy, Karl Marx, Elizabeth of York, Ottoline Morrell and Virginia Woolf. I sometimes look at the volumes and reflect on the years lived though it’s not always a conscious thing. Similarly, living in our five hundred year old home, I feel reassured that many others have lived here, and have faced and overcome their own challenges, whatever they may have been.
In ‘The Comfort of Things’, Daniel Miller says relationships ‘flow constantly’ between persons and things. His extraordinarily moving portrait of thirty households in a street in modern London, focusing on our relationship with material things, reveals the centrality of stuff in our lives and what it means for our relationships with people (Miller, 2008). Like my Great Aunt Winifred Anstee (another family member who worked at Heffers) I’m very attached to my books. Hunter Davies said we are a people divided between those who accumulate and those who chuck out. Like Aunty Win, I’m in the former camp. As a child I loved to browse through her overflowing bookcase. I later learned that she had purchased the bookcase for 5 shillings from Heffers when they made the move from Petty Cury to Trinity Street in 1970, and I’m pleased to say that it is still in the family.
I did have a spell working in a library, though it wasn’t in the role I had dreamed of as a teenager. A history fanatic at fourteen, besides wanting to meet Mary Queen of Scots, I wanted to be an archivist. Instead, I worked as the Senior Housing Adviser at Norwich Advice Services in the ‘90s when it was located in the old Norwich subscription library on Guildhall Hill. I recall two memorable days; first, when I heard the news that Margaret Thatcher had resigned in November 1990, and second, when I became trapped in an interview room by a highly disturbed client for two uncomfortable and alarming hours. The building is now a restaurant.
The most significant event in the history of libraries in Norwich (and perhaps in the UK) was when the central library burned down on 1st August 1994. My (first marriage) wedding anniversary, as it happens. I recall watching the news with horror and fully understanding Councillor Brenda Ferris’ distress as she stood in front of the smouldering pile of bricks and pages – a very real Farenheit 451.
I recently visited a friend who gave her address as, ‘The Old Library’. I was delighted to find a stunning and stylish home, still full of books and a most fitting abode for an inspirational, intelligent and incredibly well read woman, writing up her National Trust funded PhD on the history of adult education at Attingham Hall in Shropshire. My own library at home (not the genuine article like Sharon’s), expanded significantly in 2012 when Trevor and I joyfully conjoined our lives, along with our not insignificant book collections. Is there such a thing as a marriage of libraries? Our small publishing venture, Gottahavebooks is certainly an expression of our shared love of books and of social history. And now my pile of postdoc reading material is getting out of hand as I buy and borrow publications that I had wanted to read for years but dared not for fear of neglecting the doctoral thesis.
We can’t all afford to buy the books we read, and we may not want to anyway. Joining a library gives us access to books and so much more. Being a member of a library also entails certain responsibilities. If you don’t follow the rules there are sanctions. Trevor says it’s about having a sense of order and discipline. He says whilst you don’t have to be a member to use the facilities, one should, for example, be quiet. I do get that. However, my children enjoyed the ‘Dick and Dom in ad Bungalow show’ in the mid-2000s, which featured a game called ‘Bogies’. Celebrities took part and I recall Carol Vorderman shouting out ‘bogies!’ possibly in Cambridge University Library (though I may be wrong). It broke the rules and it was funny.
I’ve had my own entertaining library moments. More embarrassing than funny at the time, my backpack was once so overloaded with library books that I fell backwards whilst making polite conversation with one of my college lecturers outside the library at Norwich City College. I went down gracefully, landing on my back, feeling grateful that the books cushioned my fall. The incident, which now makes me smile, reminds me of Del Boy’s famous fall.
Confident, not corporate: the way to a ‘no corrections’ PhD
We’ve all had that recurring fantasy, the one where the examiners pronounce that we have passed the viva with ‘no corrections’. In my case, I was convinced that it would remain just that, pure fantasy. Then, on 27th November 2015, it became a reality. I had passed with ‘no corrections’.
I couldn’t believe it and my examiners said, ‘what did you expect?’ A few days later I received their formal report which stated,
‘The thesis was very impressive and was well-defended. Both theory and methodology were well-developed and clearly explained and justified’
It wasn’t a dream. I thought my responses during the viva could have been more specific. Also, I was rather taken aback with the first question which was, ‘what motivated you to do the PhD?’ I had rehearsed the presentation of a summary of my thesis but not an account of why I did it. On reflection it seems an obvious question to ask, as I hadn’t gone the normal route. I started the PhD in my forties whilst working full-time and it was not funded. I had, however, lived with it for so long that I’m still, even now, adjusting to the idea of living without it.
In a previous blog post on, ’15 lessons from doing doctoral research’, I reflected on some aspects of the doctoral experience. The final stage of my doctoral journey involved preparing for the viva, and this is what I did.
I read, and re-read the thesis.
I marked up the typos (n14). (I had decided not to ask Trevor, my husband, to proof read before the submission because he was under a great deal of pressure at the time with two major commissions. I did make an enquiry with a professional proof reading service and received a response stating that ‘proof reading is not a ‘cheap’ exercise when undertaken properly, and it is important to ascertain that your budget is in line with likely costs.’ Whilst appreciating the point, I decided to go it alone).
I wrote forty pages of notes on the following:
The conclusions of my research and how my findings fit in with or contradict the rest of the literature in the field
A sketch of the thesis, a summary of the eight chapters and eight appendices.
What my work tells us that we did not know before, and implications for the future development of the field
How the topic was framed, my reasons for using reflexive sociology and my specific take on my chosen theoretical framework
The practical and ethical difficulties encountered in conducting the research
Concerns about representativeness and how the data may or may not appropriately relate to the theoretical concepts and measure what is actually going on
The additional techniques and data I would like to have used and why I didn’t use them
Making such extensive notes was like revising for a major examination. The fact that I was revising my own work, words I had so diligently crafted, didn’t stop the fear of having my mind go blank. How on earth am I going to remember it all in the final interrogation? If I took all my notes and my annotated thesis into the viva, perhaps they would act as a reminder. (Yes, I did take them in. I laid them out neatly on the table in front of me. I pointed to the notes a few times and opened the thesis once).
I had two mock vivas, the first with a brave and kind colleague from Cambridge, and the second with both supervisors. I hadn’t prepared sufficiently for the first and it (inevitably) ended in tears; I was annoyed with myself more than anything. The second was fine and gave me some useful pointers that I hadn’t previously considered such as reconciling the difference between a constructivist and structural reading, the longitudinal dimension of the research encounter, and why it is not a case study but still makes sense in an institutional context.
I wrote and practiced a short presentation under the heading of, ‘Please provide a summary of your thesis, describe its rationale and what you consider to be its main aims, key findings and contributions to knowledge’. I tested this out on colleagues at a research meeting where I handed out copies of my research poster and an explanation of the ‘Infinity Model of Academic Community’. They responded with constructive questions and I felt encouraged.
I researched papers written by my examiners and looked for similarities in their arguments to mine. Gewirtz had declared that collectively, as sociologists, we need to be more ethically reflexive (Gewirtz & Cribb 2006) and Stronach, on professionalism, had emphasised the need for a theory of tension; tension between ‘economies of performance’ and ‘ecologies of practice’ (Stronach et al 2002 – online 2010). Stronach et al had called for a ‘more fissiparous employment that will keep tensions in movement’; their metaphor for professionalism (‘pulse’ rather than ‘push’) chimed with something one of my supervisors had said about envisaging my Infinity Model of Academic Community as pulsating.
I looked up recent publications on my topic. (I used to eagerly trawl the SRHE Research Into Higher Education Abstracts as a way of catching up on the latest literature. However, as I prepared for my final submission, I found that I couldn’t open the June edition for fear of finding something that would somehow crush the whole argument of my thesis. When I did finally look, I found a particularly interesting paper on ‘sense of community’ in academic communities of practice. It seemed fortuitous more than anything).
I booked a short holiday in Suffolk with Trevor, who accompanied me to UEA on the day of the viva and spent a happy hour or so at the Sainsbury Centre’s Alphonse Mucha exhibition as I underwent the examination.
At the School, when I came out to await the final verdict, a kind colleague handed me a slice of cake, declaring it was just what I needed. Within two minutes I had been called back in and I had to leave the cake outside. After congratulations and hugs from the panel members, I rushed over to find Trevor, as I wanted him to be the first to hear the news. I then phoned my children and my parents. Afterwards Trevor and I drove to Suffolk and spent an enjoyable but tiring three days visiting more galleries and museums, (not so) gently floating back down to earth.
Finally, in wanting to appear (and feel) more confident than corporate, I chose to wear my red patent leather DMs with a gorgeous mini-skirt my daughter, Phoebe, found for me in Top Shop.
Blue hair, green jacket, multi-coloured skirt and red boots.
What did you, or what will you… wear to YOUR VIVA?
Gewirtz, S, & Cribb, A 2006, ‘What to do about values in social research: The case for ethical reflexivity in the sociology of education’, British Journal Of Sociology Of Education, 27, 2, pp. 141-155
Ian Stronach , Brian Corbin , Olwen McNamara , Sheila Stark & Tony Warne (2002) Towards an uncertain politics of professionalism: teacher and nurse identities in flux, Journal of Education Policy, 17:1, 109-138
Having submitted my PhD thesis on 28th July, I planned to take a well-earned break. Much as I love writing, the marathon effort involved in completing a 100,000-word thesis was exhausting and I needed to re-charge my batteries. As it turned out, I didn’t actually get that break, for reasons explained below, and I’m now preparing for my viva, scheduled for 27th November.
A good way to begin that prep, I thought, was to read the thesis. My first reaction on picking up this weighty tome was to wonder who had written it. It looks far too good for someone who failed the 11plus back in ’72 and who always had to work doubly hard to make the grade. But then, it’s surprising how good a script can look when printed and bound. It can still, of course, be crap.
No matter (I tell myself). My enthusiasm for the topic was quickly rekindled, boosted by a recent positive exchange with the Senior Commissioning Editor of Palgrave Macmillan about a possible book publication based on the thesis. I had already decided that I wanted to make a statement with my research and a book seems the ideal way to do it. All well and good but now I must press the pause button on the book plans and focus on the prep for November.
If I want to make a statement (in whatever format), I must demonstrate that I have something original to say. It may be useful, therefore, to consider the notion of originality, as in ‘original contribution to knowledge’, the doctoral requisite that strikes fear into the hearts (and minds) of all postgraduate researchers as they lurch or limp towards the final hurdle. It is of course sensible to check what is stipulated in the guidelines for examiners (don’t want to trip up by not understanding the question). The University of East Anglia requires,
‘the discovery of new knowledge, the connection of previously unrelated facts, the development of a new theory or the revision of older views.’ (Guidelines for Examiners)
Dunleavy, who imparts indispensible advice on doing doctoral research, stresses the importance of grounding your originality in your research. He warns against, ‘value-added’ artificiality and observes that coining new concepts or terminology that are not really needed is not being genuinely original. (Dunleavy 2003 p110)
In my own case, I declare that my newly devised ‘Infinity Model’ of academic community provides a cohesive framework for critically appraising academic community, by balancing extrinsic (value) and intrinsic (values) elements, taking us beyond the notion in its most limited form (the form that is dominant today).
In order to avoid an accusation of artificiality, or to be ready with a convincing repost if I do stand accused, I must explain my approach to constructing the research object (the idea and experience of academic community) and to engaging with the literature and the data. Doing so in a way that clearly demonstrates how the act of construction was necessary (it was a problem that needed addressing) and how it has brought about new knowledge. At the very least, I plan to demonstrate that I’ve made a connection between ‘previously unrelated facts’ about the topic.
Dunleavy believes that originality is a cumulative achievement, that new ideas,
‘most often reflect the patient accumulation of layers of small insights and intuitions that only taken together allow an alternative view of a problem to crystallise.’ (Dunleavy 2003 p40)
Whilst many of those layers are set out in a fine-grained analysis, no thesis can truly impart the extent and depth of the incremental cognitive activity that doctoral research entails; how, as a researcher (and a human being), you never totally switch off the cogitation, no matter what you’re doing or how long it takes (nearly seven years, part-time in my case). Perhaps the viva is an opportunity to communicate some of that as a way of demonstrating originality. However, best not to bleat about the protraction. And it wasn’t really that bad. Tony Judt, in his exquisite memoir, ‘The Memory Chalet’, describes how he did much of his doctoral reading whilst working in the kitchens at the Blue Boar Hotel in Cambridge,
‘Once mastered, short-order cooking does more than allow for the life of the mind; it facilitates it.’ (Judt p133)
I can’t imagine the mundane travails of doing doctoral research would be of any interest to the examiners. It comes with the territory.
I mentioned that I didn’t take a break after submitting the thesis. Instead, I went about setting up our new small publishing venture called ‘Gottahavebooks’, including pre-selling our first publication and assisting Trevor with preparing a 124,000 word manuscript for press. The publication is a compilation of first-hand accounts of ‘60s Rolling Stones concerts, told in the words of those who were there, gathered by Richard Houghton. It’s a great read. The stories are original and the book contains previously unpublished images of the band. By bringing the fans accounts together in this format, Richard has helped to shed a new light on the social history of the period, on the Rolling Stones and on the fans themselves.
This in itself is new knowledge but it is different from the sort of knowledge created through doctoral research. For example, Dunleavy tells us to focus on ‘added value’, to keep a critical eye on the extent to which you have transformed or enhanced or differentiated the starting materials of your analysis (Dunleavy 2003 p31).
Whilst the fans’ accounts may be viewed as starting (or primary) materials and whilst they’ve been through a transcription, editorial and publishing process, they’ve not been analysed or interpreted – not in an academic sense. That wasn’t the intention. As I understand it, Richard’s intention was to retain as much as possible the authenticity of the fans’ voices. I too, in my research, wanted authenticity; the title of my thesis is, ‘The academy and community: seeking authentic voices inside higher education’. But the similarity ends there.
The accounts that I had gathered through conversations and focus groups with academics were also transcribed but then subject to a detailed and extensive heuristic analysis. The object of my research (the idea and experience of community) is interpreted and (re)constructed in a way that blends its disparate elements, as revealed through the research itself. The approach to my analysis is briefly explained in my blog post published 28th February 2015 –
Dunleavy says that doing genuinely new theory at PhD level is now very difficult in all of the humanities and social science disciplines,
‘The large empty spaces and opportunities for making major intellectual advances available earlier on have tended to be colonized.’ (Dunleavy 2003 p38) He says,
‘being original in the modern social sciences and humanities is rarely about coming up with an entirely new way of looking at things… it is mostly a more moderate activity… originality involves encountering an established idea or viewpoint or method in one part of your discipline (or in a neighbouring discipline) and then taking that idea for a walk and putting it down somewhere else, applying it in a different context or for a different purpose.’ (Dunleavy 2003 p40)
It is true that much has been written on the topic of academic community. The tone of that literature implies a sense of something that may have been lost but is on the brink of being found, if only we knew where to look. That’s where the contribution of my thesis comes into play, by setting out where to look and by developing a framework that helps us to do so; a framework that leads to a fresh insight and a new model. Yes, I have utilised established constructs, such as the infinity symbol, for the purpose of describing and understanding the relations of the homology that is the idea and experience of academic community. The model is an outcome of the research and it is to be taken forward. It has significant potential as a conceptual framework for exploring, through research and through dialogue, the conditions that create, define, sustain or destroy community inside the academy.
This is the key message for my examiners.
Does it sound convincing?
Dunleavy, P (2003) Authoring a PhD: How to Plan, Draft, Write and Finish a Doctoral Thesis or Dissertation Palgrave Macmillan
I have precious little time for new writing this month as I put the final touches to my doctoral thesis, which goes to print in mid-July (hooray!). One of the appendices is the poster that I presented at the Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE) Annual Conference in 2012. I recall it was enormous fun working with Trevor Bounford on the poster design. Trevor, a talented designer and illustrator, ably captured my ideas and ‘cut-out’ tea-party concept in his drawings. The text in the poster is from the research data, not my words but those of the research participants. It was also fun presenting the poster at the SRHE Conference, especially with the design being a little out of the ordinary. As well as A4 handouts of the poster, I gave out postcards printed with a design on the front, based on the poster content, and an explanation of my methodology on the reverse.
You can see the postcard and download the full poster as a pdf via this website using the link below –
Work on my final chapter is progressing well and I should have the draft finished soon. Meanwhile, my supervisor asked if I would jot down some lessons I had learned about research through doing the doctorate. Whilst the list below is not exhaustive, it is hopefully useful to postgraduate research colleagues and possibly others.
Reviewing the literature is a continuous process. Keeping abreast of relevant abstracts, preferably via a learned society in your field is essential. Maintaining an accurate electronic library of sources from the beginning makes checking and cross-referencing so much easier.
Printing source material may be costly and is not environmentally friendly but doing so and having it constantly on-hand, significantly aids your review. Spending time sifting through the literature and reflecting helps you to fully comprehend the conversation that you are joining.
Searching electronic databases is essential but do not ignore the benefits of simply walking around the university library. Useful publications can unexpectedly leap off the shelves. Know the value of a book as opposed to a journal paper. A book enables you to see how a sustained argument can be (well or badly) constructed.
Getting into the habit of writing, right from the start, makes the task of drafting chapters easier and more enjoyable. A regular writing routine pays huge dividends in productivity and can be very gratifying.
Keeping a monthly blog during the research provides an arena for thinking out loud about emerging ideas and conclusions. It is also helps to introduce discipline into your routine.
Doing doctoral research part-time whilst occupying a professional role that entails different forms of writing makes it more important to distinguish between your academic and managerial forms of writing. Do not be afraid to share what you have written and nurture your academic voice as well as your academic identity.
Doing doctoral research is a form of continuous meditation. The cognitive process is never entirely switched-off. Always be prepared to record emerging thoughts and ideas, whatever time of day or night. Those light-bulb moments really do happen.
Pilot data gathering is an effective way of refining the overarching research question. Do not underestimate the value of testing out your initial ideas and be open to variations. Your question is likely to change.
Understanding the heuristic value of combining your existing practical knowledge of the field and the newly formed scholarly knowledge gained in doing the research helps you to manage boundaries and determine what is data. Do not see every scenario as a data gathering opportunity.
Transcribing is time-consuming and using a professional transcription service helps to save time. Do your own transcribing wherever possible and if you do use a professional service, check their transcripts against the audio-recorded data before commencing any analysis.
Taking the opportunity to assess the data analysis tools at your disposal means that your ultimate selection is well informed and can be justified, even if you decide not to use any.
Listening to the opinions of others (especially your supervisors) about content and structure aids reflection. Do not worry if those opinions are variable or if your supervisor’s opinion changes from draft to draft. Take time to consider them all but remember that the ultimate argument you are making, and therefore justifying, is yours.
Researching researchers who share your discipline can make it easier to communicate concepts through a common vocabulary. Do not be surprised, however, if your participants turn your questions back on you. Utilise such exchanges to enhance your reflexivity.
Explaining your research to others, both inside and outside the academy, helps to crystallise your argument. Unlike you, others are not immersed in the topic and do not feel passionate about it in the way that you do. Treat every encounter as an opportunity to question your own assumptions.
Backing up your work may be a no-brainer but do not take it for granted. Always take your memory stick away with you. If the house burns down you will at least not have lost the countless number of hours you have spent on this project. A colleague once said to me, ‘it is only a PhD’ but losing the work would be catastrophic.
What you cannot account for is the stuff that happens along the way. Since starting the doctorate in October 2008, I have been divorced and remarried, I have changed jobs and I have moved house four times.
Right now, finding the time to write anything apart from the final chapter of my PhD is difficult. However, I just can’t let the prospect of George and Phoebe’s first opportunity to vote in a General Election pass by without some acknowledgement of this significant milestone – in their lives and in mine.
It doesn’t seem that long ago when I routinely took George and Phoebe with me to the polling station in Southrepps on elections days. I’m grateful that the Presiding Officer never minded me taking the children into the polling booth. Our little ritual included reading through the list of candidates before I cast my vote, and George liked to pop the folded ballot paper into the box.
These days George is far away at Durham University and Phoebe lives in North Norfolk. I miss them both and was really pleased when Phoebe told me that she is going to vote with her Dad – a nice way to mark the occasion.
Years ago, long before rolling registration, I occasionally traipsed the streets of Norwich, delivering electoral census forms. Like all piecework, there was much more to the job than meets the eye. After collecting the forms from the council office you had to sort and deliver them. At a later date, you had to collect the returned completed forms, sort and mark them against the draft register, and then deliver any reminders. The whole process was exhausting and sometimes hazardous, mostly due to the dogs and the strongly sprung letterboxes.
A more enjoyable task was polling duty on the big day itself, which I did for a few years in my twenties. I never applied for the rank of Presiding Officer, choosing to leave that enormous responsibility to someone else and instead, enjoyed a day out of the office, meeting the folk who came to vote and the various pollsters who hung around outside.
And so, George and Phoebe, many congratulations on your right to vote in the forthcoming General Election.
In July, Trevor Bounford and I will be joining friends and colleagues at Old Hampstead Town Hall to celebrate the long and extraordinary life of the late Bruce Robertson, co-founder of the Diagram Group, or Diagram Visual Information Ltd. In recent years, we had the privilege of spending a number of convivial evenings with Bruce and his wife, Pat, at their favourite restaurant, Pasta Plus, near Euston Station in London. I loved to hear their stories about Sunderland Art School where they met, Bruce’s time at the Royal College of Art, the early Diagram years and trips to the Frankfurt Book Fair. I could easily picture in my mind’s eye, a much younger Bruce and Trevor working together at the studio in Soho. We were thrilled when Bruce and Pat made it all the way to Gransden for our wedding bash in 2013, despite Bruce’s many health problems – it meant a great deal to have their blessing.
One of the stories was about the founding of the Diagram Group Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year at the Frankfurt Book Fair, now known as the Bookseller/Diagram Prize. According to Bruce, the prize was originally Trevor’s idea. In 1977 Trevor suggested the Diagram crew look for seemingly bizarre, yet serious, book titles as a part of their book fair routine – scouting for possible publication projects. How do you stop yourself from becoming ‘book blind’? You look for weird titles – odd by accident, not by design.
The first winner, in 1978, was in fact, an academic publication, ‘Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice’ published by the University of Tokyo Press. Of course, to biologists, this title may not appear odd at all but to the outsider… nude mice? Really?
Still running after almost forty years, here are some of the recent winners of the Prize:
2010 Managing a Dental Practice: The Genghis Khan Way by Michael R. Young. A how-to guide on managing a dental practice, published by Radcliffe.
2011 Cooking with Poo by Saiyuud Diwong. A Thai cookbook published by Urban Neighbours of Hope.
2012 Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop by Bakeley Reginal. A guide to banishing fairies from your home published by Conari Press.
2013 How to Poo on a Date by Mats & Enzo. The ‘lovers’ guide to toilet etiquette published by Prion Press.
2014 Strangers Have the Best Candy by Margaret Meps Stiletto. A self-published travelogue published by Choose Art.
In 2013, Bruce donated the Diagram Group archive to the University for the Creative Arts, and it is now being used for teaching and research. In November 2014, Dr Sue Perks and Rebekah Taylor from UCA gave a fascinating a talk about the archive which, for me, illuminated the socio-political context in which the Group operated, and the extent to which their body of work contributed to the democratisation of information about everyday things, predominately in pre-internet times. Personally, I’d love to explore this further, if ever I get the time after finishing the PhD.
Meanwhile, the Diagram Prize concept got me thinking. Not about academic publication titles but about those of public lectures given by academics.
Have you ever given a public lecture and employed a quirky turn of phrase to elicit interest?
Did it attract the right sort of interest?
Or have you ever come across or used a title that prompted an unexpected reaction or audience?
If so, please do share. There’s no prize offered – let’s have a show and tell.
As a child in the 1960s, I had to undergo regular visits to the optician. I didn’t mind so much having to go. It was a chance to skip school, sit in Dipple and Conway’s snug little waiting room and read Rupert the Bear annuals. In thinking about the approach to reading and interpreting the data in my doctoral research, I was reminded of those visits. Just like in the eye examination, my visual acuity was being tested – how could I clearly see the data?
Using the concept of the lens, I created a coding framework based on the inductive process I had thus far conducted via the literature review and an initial thematic data analysis. The framework in fact comprised a series of eight lenses through which I read the data. Whilst it was not my intention to be overly prescriptive or sociologically reductive, using the framework as a reading tool enabled me to think at a deeper, more heuristic level, about what I was seeing in the context of the research questions.
I read the data (all 169,000 words) manually, through each lens in turn, using five different refractions, which allowed me to consider the specific research questions from different angles. Using the coding framework as a heuristic tool, informed by both an inductive and deductive process, enabled me to be more systematic. It also enabled me to remain connected to the theory. This is where the theory and data, never far apart, began to move closer together for the final analysis. The discipline of employing the refractions reminded me of having to wear the plastic blue NHS spectacles as child with a fabric plaster stuck over one of the lenses for whole weeks at a time, just to get my lazy eye to work that much harder – now that, I did mind!
Perhaps I should explain why I conducted a manual, in vivo analysis instead of using computer software. I attended a training course quite early on in the research, on the NVivo programme and immediately became concerned about the possibility of the data becoming subservient in some way to the software. It all seemed to be very process-driven – although I do acknowledge the plea, what is data analysis, if not a process? However, I was also concerned about the possibility of becoming distanced from the data, and losing the voice of the participants in a noise of nodes. I didn’t want to become detached from meaning and context. This is why I decided, therefore, to continue with a manual analysis. Sometimes a practical, hands on approach, can be the most productive, even if it does take a little longer… OK, a lot longer!
Through the coding and analysis, I attempted to make possible biases less opaque and to problematise structuring influences, which included my own inside experience and relationship with both the research topic and the research participants. I was once again reminded of those visits to the optician; this time in the consulting room, sitting in a high leather chair with my legs dangling, wearing heavy metal frames into which the nice optician slotted different lenses as I attempted to read the letters off the Snellen chart hanging on the wall at the far end of the room. The danger, as always, was the temptation to recall the sequence of letters from previous visits. I had to concentrate really hard on seeing it all as though I had never seen it before and yet still be able to recognise what I was looking at. As with re-reading the research data through the final, fine-grained analysis, I needed to see it all afresh and not make assumptions or rush to conclusions.
In applying this heuristic approach, I’m ultimately blending my existing practical knowledge of the research topic as an insider researcher, and my newly formed scholarly knowledge gained by doing the research itself. This is where I’m at right now, as I draw the picture into sharp focus and approach the task of writing the final chapter of my thesis.
This post, a bit of light relief from the academic writing, introduces a new fictional character, Cyril Wilmslow, volunteer extraordinaire.
Cyril Wilmslow’s discomfort was painfully obvious as he attempted to secure his seat in the already crowded gallery. Close physical proximity, especially to those of his own kind, was something he tried to avoid – touching was out of the question. Cyril shuddered visibly as he inevitably brushed past the well-rounded nylon clad knees of an immaculately attired, over odourised middle-aged lady who looked up and beamed invitingly. She made no attempt to lean the other way and appeared to relish his unease.
Being a gentleman, Cyril grappled for the right words to apologise for his ungallant infringement of her personal space. To his dismay he instead erupted with a senseless blustery gasp as he pressed his corpulent gut over the balustrade whilst straining to save, not hers, but his own blushes. His blazing red cheeks, his flaxen hair plastered across his hot forehead and his cobalt waistcoat created above all, a patriotic vision of red, white and blue – a vision which, in different circumstances, Cyril would have most heartily approved of.
Cyril finally managed to squeeze his frame into the only remaining gap, next to the smiling lady. As soon as he sat down, she gently tilted towards him as if anticipating his manly protection from what they were about to witness. There seemed to be no escape. He would have to remain at close range for the duration.
‘I fear the shock of what’s to come may be too much for me to bear,’ she sighed, clearly seeking comfort before the proceedings had even begun.
Cyril had that effect on people. As he would remind his wife every morning at breakfast,
‘I have an aura of compassion that draws the sad and the sick wherever I go, Mrs W.’
In fact, the conversation at breakfast just an hour earlier had followed the usual pattern. Sitting at an immaculately laid breakfast table, Cyril tucked in his napkin and consumed his bran flakes with military precision, starting with the top of the bowl and working his way downwards in a clockwise motion. As ever, Cyril was oblivious to the clanking that reverberated around the small kitchen as he used his spoon to round up any deviant flakes, and oblivious to Mrs W’s flinching. Mrs W never complained, so how could he possibly know that the sound drove her to distraction every morning?
In truth, Cyril was a real stickler for good table manners, always the first to spot the foul misdeeds of a fellow diner such as shovelling peas and what he contemptuously regarded as ‘chomping’. He struggled immensely with the communal dining experience in the staff canteen and could not help scowling at offenders, making them feel dreadfully uneasy. They could not know what they had done to displease but would be left in no doubt that whatever it was, their sin would never be absolved.
That morning at breakfast Cyril picked up his neatly folded Cambridge News and glanced at the headlines,
STUDENT IN DEATH PLUNGE TRAGEDY
‘Oh dear Mrs W’ he exclaimed, ‘another blessed soul has slipped through the net.’
Mrs W, waiting for Cyril to hand over his empty cereal bowl in exchange for a quieter plateful of mushrooms and scrambled eggs, asked,
‘Pardon, what’s that dear?’
Irritated at having to repeat himself Cyril retorted loudly, ‘I said yet another blessed soul slips through the next. I would’ve talked him out of it. Convinced him that life’s always worth living!’
Mrs W, a consistent and compliant player in the breakfast liturgy, declared,
‘Perhaps I shouldn’t say it Mr W but you’re a pillar of society, you are the life-blood of the Cambridge Samaritans!’
Cyril could not agree more but knew it would appear conceited to say so. Yes, it was true. Total strangers told him their life stories, their tragedies and tales – at the Coop checkout, on the guided bus and in the queue at the post office. That was why he did what he did; one night a week as a Good Samaritan and one day a week as a Witness Service Volunteer, comforting the victims and witnesses of all manner of crimes.
Back on the gallery, resigned to the burden of consoling his new neighbour, Cyril made himself as comfortable as he could. Looking around, he admired the symbols of office with reverence and reflection, sharing an acute sense of occasion with everyone present, officials and public alike. The solemnity of the audacious yet utilitarian backdrop, designed by the town cemetery architect did not appear to dampen the anticipation of what could well turn out to be the best show in town.
Cyril had been here many times before but today was different. This time he was a member of the public and he had personal knowledge of the major protagonist.
All present were about to be both fascinated and repulsed.
It had been a trying few days for Ruth, a newly arrived lecturer at Greystone. She felt disconnected, almost cut off, despite having received a thorough induction from the administrators in the local support office and a five page checklist of departmental directives which seemed to cover every conceivable aspect of campus life. And that was only a part of it. After a campus orientation tour and yet more briefings on this, that and the other, Ruth was finally issued with a gleaming campus card. Now a fully signed-up member of the university, she had access to the hallowed ground that was the staff car park, just as long as she made it to work by nine every morning – before all the spaces had gone. Reeling after this most thorough initiation, Ruth still felt somehow lonely. She was dying to meet her teaching colleagues and wanted to get on with the teaching. She was also by now quite frankly desperate for a conversation about something more stimulating than first aid kits and fire drills.
The design of the arts building where Ruth had her office seemed to make things worse. When she first saw the rows of closed heavy oak doors along both sides of the narrow and dingy breeze block corridor, it crossed her mind that the place could easily be mistaken for a monastery, or a prison. She even asked herself,
‘Who occupies these cells, saints or sinners?’
For Ruth it felt like a more like prison. Confined to her cramped office behind one of those doors with barely enough room for a single desk, she found herself wondering where everyone was and how she could meet them.
Just that morning as Ruth was unlocking her office she heard a door open at the other end of the corridor. She turned quickly, ready to give a smile and at least wave good morning but to her disappointment, no one materialised and the door closed almost instantly.
Not to worry, she thought. This morning’s meeting will change all that. Ruth had received an invitation by email from her new academic director, Jonathon to a ‘scheduled conversation’ about the course she would be teaching. After locating his door, she knocked gingerly and heard a gentle voice,
On the other side Ruth found Jonathon sitting in a comfortable room with a desk, a meeting table with four chairs and a large window which overlooked the walkway, a long concrete pathway which zigzagged through the centre of the campus.
Across the room Jonathon was smiling.
‘Hi Ruth, welcome to Greystone. Glad you managed to locate my room. I know it isn’t easy for the uninitiated. I hope you’re settling in OK.’
Thinking but not dare saying, ‘I’d hardly describe myself as that’, Ruth enthusiastically greeted Jonathon and blurted out how she keen she was to meet the team.
‘It will be nice to finally meet everyone,’ she repeated.
‘Ah yes’, he replied, and looking at this watch he added, ‘but it’s not quite time… coffee?’
Reaching up to a compact coffee maker tucked neatly on top of his filing cabinet, Jonathon asked,
‘What will it be, Cappuccino, Latte or Americano?’
Ruth imagined she might be in Costa, a brand seen on almost every campus. Not wanting to give the impression that having a barista for a boss was anything out of ordinary, she opted for her usual – an Americano. Jonathon happily obliged and poured it into a paper cup.
‘You’ll need a lid when we go out.’ He said. ‘I have some here.’
‘Onto the walkway… to meet the team. We’ve just a minute and then we’d better go down.’
‘On the walkway? I thought we might be meeting them in the staff room. You know, at coffee time.’
‘Oh we don’t have a staff room any more. And coffee time was stopped last year as part of the ‘Use or Lose’ Campaign. The school office did an audit. Something about the number of ideas for successful research grant applications and stuff like that, and then declared we didn’t need coffee time. In my opinion, use or lose doesn’t come into it. We were using it. I don’t think they realised just how much business is done over coffee. So we’ve had to find an alternative way to meet.’
‘What happens now then?’ asked Ruth.
‘We make our own coffee and meet on the walkway between 10 and 10.30 every day. It’s a bit random as you can often get what feels like the whole university wandering up and down. It gets really crowded out there. They must’ve shut down coffee time in all the schools. At least when we had it in 0.23 you knew who you’d be seeing.’ He paused. ‘Didn’t they cover this in your induction?’
‘I thought they covered pretty much everything. Seems not.’
Jonathon handed her a lid.
A moment later, he led Ruth down to the walkway. She wondered what exactly was going to happen. They stood in the walkway at the school entrance and waited. At first, there was hardly anyone around. Gradually people began to emerge from the various school entrances. Most were holding coffee cups, along with notebooks and iPads. Some were holding up sheets of paper with names written on them as if they were meeting someone at an airport.
After three for four minutes, people were milling around along the whole length of the walkway, in eager conversation. It gave Ruth the impression of exercise time in a prison yard.
With a shout of ‘Follow me!’ Jonathon started moving towards the top end of the walkway.
So, thought Ruth, this is how we meet the team.
Do you still commune for ‘coffee time’ at your university?
The Climategate clarion call – is it time for another?
Having read Kevin Grandia’s recent Huffington blog on ‘Climategate: 5 years later’, I reflect on a missed opportunity from a public engagement perspective.
In 2006, UEA’s Executive Team asked me to write the bid for the university to become one of six national Beacons for Public Engagement and to invite Professor Keith Roberts, a public engagement exemplar, to be our champion. Having agreed to do so, Keith co-authored the business plan and following our success, chaired our Beacon steering group and acted as my mentor throughout the four-year programme, from 2008 to 2012. We would not have secured the Beacon status without Keith’s endorsement and I’m indebted to him for his support. Keith also kindly secured Paul Nurse (then president of the Rockefeller Institute) as a bid referee, to accompany Mike Tomlinson (former Chief Inspector of Schools) and Frances Cairncross (then Chair of the BA Festival of Science 2006 which had just taken place in Norwich).
The Beacon Funders Group, comprising the Higher Education Funding Councils, Research Councils UK (RCUK) and the Wellcome Trust, took an active interest in the progress of all six Beacons via regular updates, evaluation reports and by their representation at bi-monthly Beacon Coordination Group meetings. In September 2011, leading up to the end of the programme, the Beacon project directors and their champions attended a Funders Group panel in London. During our presentation I was asked why I had chosen to continue in my role as the Beacon for Public Engagement Project Director, despite particular challenges,
‘was it altruism that kept you going?’
The Funders were referring to two factors, both of which feature strongly in the higher education sector and both of which have particular resonance for UEA during this period; first, the continuing rise and dominance of the enterprise discourse and second, the imperative to maintain a positive institutional reputation.
At UEA this manifested itself in a discourse and managerial structure controlled by enterprise and an emulation of the business world. The then ‘Knowledge Transfer’ Executive was the formal internal accountable body for the Beacon that UEA was hosting. Whilst I had the opportunity as the Project Director to present regular progress reports to the Executive as a standard agenda item, meetings were mainly consumed by the calculation of income generated by consultancy and spinouts, the management of intellectual property, and the accumulation of prizes.
Ron Barnett, reflecting in 2011 on the possibility of the authentic university, refers to a ‘dominant self-deceiving mode of being’ whereby a university exhibits ‘bad faith’. For example, when it persuades itself that it can do none other than orient itself towards income generation as its dominant mode of being. At UEA, a prime example of Barnett’s ‘dystopia’, engagement was drowned out by the din of the dollar discourse.
In April 2010, halfway through the Beacon programme, the independent evaluator reported that at senior leadership and management levels, public engagement at UEA had certainly been put on the agenda but it had been largely ‘tolerated’ rather than actively endorsed. 2010 had been a challenging year for the university’s reputation. Any external assessment that could be construed as negative or an outright criticism would have been unwelcome, particularly in this context. A few months previously, in November 2009, it had emerged that the computers at the university’s climatic research unit had been hacked, resulting in what became known as ‘Climategate’.
UEA has never acknowledged any direct association between public engagement and Climategate. This was not the case outside the university, however, where across and beyond the Beacon network, people at all levels in the sector were making the connection between the idea that someone would want to hack a university research unit and the perceived need for a more open dialogue about research between researchers and society (a colleague at the Open University, Rick Holliman, has since aptly described Climategate as an ‘unstructured’ form of public engagement (Holliman 2011).
Alan Thorpe, then Chief Executive of the Natural Environment Research Council and RCUK Public Engagement Champion, in his keynote address to the first national Engage Conference in December 2010, described the incident as a ‘clarion call for public engagement’. Unfortunately, his intended audience from UEA arrived late and did not get to receive the message that the Beacon Funders so wanted them to hear. However, in the context of the national Beacon programme, there was no avoiding the issue.
A criticism, therefore, in a relatively unimportant evaluation of a relatively unimportant externally funded project may not, in more normal circumstances, have caused a great deal of consternation on the part of those inside the university. In fact, when the 2010 evaluator’s report was discussed at a high level meeting in April of that year, it was acknowledged by almost all of those present that engagement was indeed ‘tolerated’ as described.
Meanwhile, the Beacon Funders offered Keith and me what support they could in dealing with the fallout at a corporate level though what they could actually do was limited. Universities remain autonomous in many respects, which from a broader perspective is no bad thing, and I have always described the Beacon initiative as a ‘government intervention’. What this situation needed was someone at a senior level on the inside to get the bigger picture. Clearly, the reluctance at an institutional level for self-reflection prevents the possibility of self-understanding.
Barnett asks whether the university misunderstands the truth about itself or perhaps it understands the truth but blocks it out? He concludes that it is neither one thing nor the other and recognises that authenticity is acted out every day both in tiny occurrences at an individual level and in large activities. It is perhaps this more than anything else that enabled me to carry on with the Beacon role in spite of many political (with a small ‘p’) skirmishes. It was a privilege not only to work with Keith but also many other colleagues at UEA who were and remain committed to engagement and co-production in their day-to-day academic practice.
Whilst UEA may have recovered its pre- Climategate composure, assuring everyone that the incident has served to improve its reputation, the enterprise discourse is stronger than ever and the university continues to be a place of rigid hierarchy and patronage. Perhaps these characteristics inevitably apply to universities. Earlier this year following the appointment of its new Vice-Chancellor, UEA’s Executive decided to remove ‘Engagement’ from the title of Pro-Vice Chancellor so it is now just PVC for ‘Research and Enterprise’. Members of the Engagement Executive who were not consulted, or indeed notified, were concerned about the message this change would send to our community partners. At the same time phrases such as ‘altruistic but enterprising’ were starting to appear in the official narrative about engagement in university marketing materials.
It was at that point I decided to move on from those ever-decreasing circles and focus on the research and the writing.
Five years on from the Climategate clarion call, is it time for another?
Barnett, R. (2011). Being a University. London & New York, Routledge: Taylor & Francis
Richard Holliman (2011). Advocacy in the tail: Exploring the implications of ‘climategate’ for science journalism and public debate in the digital age. Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism, 12(7) pp. 832–846.
This post is prompted by Lynne Berry’s keynote at the ‘Turning the Corner’ Conference, Anglia Ruskin University, September 2014. Lynne Berry OBE is Chair of the Commission on the Voluntary Sector & Ageing.
In her address Berry contemplated the future of volunteering over the next twenty years in the context of our ageing population and the new legislation on health and social care. She wondered if the current structure of charitable organisations would survive and talked of building a new narrative and of specialist roles including providers of ‘mutual support’. She also invited us to consider volunteering organisations from a different angle, posing the possibility of,
‘a new structure for new sorts of ‘being there’ services.’
The suggestion that we need a structure for ‘being there’, and the implication that the very act of ‘being there’ could be construed as a voluntary service, prompts a number of questions about volunteering. In my post on, ‘Why extreme volunteering is too extreme’ (January 2014), I warn against the danger of ignoring basic needs, such as having some form of day-to-day human contact, which can be met via a simple act of kindness, no matter how small (this was in response to Lindsay Levkoff Lynn’s 2014 prediction for NESTA about extreme volunteering). In this post I consider the question of ‘structure’ in the context of Berry’s invitation. In my next I will consider the question of ‘services’.
It’s not that I’m against structure as such. As a sociologist I spend much of my time observing and thinking about structure in society. However, in working towards the final conclusion of my doctoral thesis on community inside higher education, I do find myself questioning the utility of structure as applied to the notion of a university community – a task that is especially challenging when, as a researcher, I find myself at different times inside or on the margins of that community, depending on the day, the role, the task and so on.
Sarah Mann considers alienation in the learning community in the context of online learning environments and cites Derrida’s understanding of community as something that has ‘an inside and an outside’ (Caputo 1997). The word ‘community’ can presuppose the idea of exclusion and as Mann says,
‘belonging and sharing in common imply not belonging and sharing in common.’ (my emphasis)
Mann concludes that belonging or having a shared purpose is not at issue. Rather, what seems to be at issue is the opening up of possibilities for expression (e.g. seeking understanding; making explicit norms and assumptions in order to question and configure them more appropriately; and voicing different experiences, histories and positions, and having these accounts heard). Facilitating dialogue is more critical than establishing a sense of belonging, in the quest for reducing alienation (Mann 2005).
In my thesis I ask whether a sense of ‘community’ is somehow structured, or if not, should it be; that is, imposed and regulated. UEA’s Corporate Plan 2008-2012 for example, declared, ‘we are a scholarly community within a wider community… the cohesion of our own community depends on parity of esteem and a sense of collegiality and mutual obligation.’
Mann describes a ‘dynamic of compliance’ which pulls teachers and learners towards a ‘surface form of harmony’ – sound familiar?
I’m drawn towards Mann’s suggestion that we resist the idea of certainty contained in a consensus-based (or more structured) view of community, ‘in order to maintain openness to the possibility that the future might bring something which is as yet unimagined or unknown.’
Ron Barnett, in acknowledging the existence of structure, or structures in the contemporary university, concludes that the space for an academic community to be an academic community is shrinking and that structure as such may tend to obtrude into the human relationships of a community. There is too much structure (Barnett 2004).
So, where does this leave Berry’s proposal for ‘a new structure for new sorts of ‘being there’ services’?
Perhaps we should think of ‘being there’ as a form of structuring itself. After all, as Berry stated in May 2009, there is a, ‘mutuality that engages us all.’
‘…Ties that bind. Contacts that help build strong, cohesive and resilient communities. These acts of citizenship build communities that can withstand snowstorms, unemployment, fire and flood…The personal experience of volunteering helps build lives and communities; and through the power of volunteering we can make a difference. We all need help sometimes.’ (Berry 2009)
If this is a form of structuring within society, how might it relate to the notion of, ‘a new structure for new sorts of ‘being there’ services’?
Was Berry envisaging the emergence of new organisational forms, arising from communities, or was she telling existing community organisations to transform themselves, to re-structure? Her audience at Anglia Ruskin in September comprised representatives from charities and social enterprise. All no doubt, concerned about their future role and indeed, existence. I was there representing ARVAC, the Association for Research in the Voluntary & Community Sector.
Professor Jenny Pearce assessed the potential of community organising in the UK at the ARVAC 2014 Annual Lecture. Writing in the ARVAC Bulletin (Issue 121), Pearce discusses the possibility of a ‘resistant citizenship’ which may be short of ‘activism’ but could still amount to a new form of organising in the community that contributes to a, ‘greater sense of belonging to place and more intra and inter neighbourhood relationships capable of giving voice to local needs.’
On the face of it, the Berry and Pearce descriptions are similar – ‘ties that bind’, ‘intra and inter neighbourhood relationships’. However, a significant difference is their use of the terms ‘resilient’ (Berry) and ‘resistant’ (Pearce). Resilient communities may ensure their survival but they do not necessarily challenge the current social order; they are more likely to reproduce it. Resistant communities have the potential to challenge and change the social order.
Also, whilst Berry endorsed the role of the voluntary sector as a campaigner at her Anglia Ruskin address, I suspect she does not envisage the sector’s role as an agent for change. In an interview with Third Sector in January 2014, Berry referred to the future charity workforce as a ‘post-employment group of portfolio workers’, drawn from a growing group of people who are retired for up to twenty years; a group that will have a lot to offer but will have high expectations of the charities they support. She said, ‘this generation will contain a lot of stroppy older women who want a bit more.’ That’s about as radical as it gets.
According to Pearce, citizens today are offered the role of consumers and little else. I wonder if Berry is offering much the same.
What real purpose would Berry’s new structure serve – resilience or resistance?
In my next post I will consider what ‘services’ may mean in this context.
The ARVAC AGM and Annual Conference, on ‘Talking out of turn: getting community voices heard’ is taking place at The Circle in Sheffield on 20th November 2014.
Barnett, R. (2004). Epilogue: Reclaiming Universities from a Runaway World. Reclaiming Universities from a Runaway World. M. Walker and J. Nixon. New York, Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.
Caputo, John D (1997). Deconstruction in a nutshell: a conversation with Jacques Derrida Fordham University Press
Mann, S. J. (2005). “Alienation in the learning environment: a failure of community?” Studies in Higher Education 30(1): 43-55.
Early one morning recently I bumped into a colleague on campus who I’d not seen for a while. He greeted me with the exclamation, ‘I hear you’ve moved over, Julie!’ Knowing exactly what he meant, I smiled and confirmed that yes, indeed, I had resigned from my management role; that I was now working as a research fellow and completing my PhD. He kindly asked about the topic of the doctorate, wished me luck and went on his way.
This exchange came at a time when for me, as Schostak says,
‘the pragmatics give way to the lonely yet exhilarating reflections on ‘life’, ‘purpose’, ‘meaning’, ‘self’ and ‘otherness.’ (Schostak, 2002 p35)
The moment I completely gave up my ‘new management’ role (I had been part-time for a while) it all went quiet. I don’t mean the embarrassed silence in the departmental meeting when I announced my impending move to a research role (I should’ve seen that coming). I mean the absence of the day-to-day jingle jangle of new management; the groans at yet another abuse of the university brand guidelines, the ‘kill Kodak’ rallying cries in the race for admissions, the laments over another conference crisis, the gripes about phone calls from eccentric alumni and rude remarks about former colleagues who had ‘moved over’ to the other side. I could at last, on the other side, hear myself think.
(It also came at a time when four friends, Andrew, Estella, Jasper and Friso, died together on flight MH17. We had been with Andrew and the boys on the Easter trip this year and whilst we were not particularly close, their sudden loss in this way shook my understanding of ‘moving to the other side’ in a very different context. I’m still thinking that one through.)
I am of course still a member of the university community. And it is far from lonely.
In examining morale in university life, David Watson, who sees universities as ‘membership organisations’, acknowledges the complex and contradictory nature of higher education and suggests that the mesh of psychological contracts, or ‘deals’ that it involves,
‘make much of the current discourse about happiness and unhappiness in contemporary life look simplistic and banal.’ (Watson, 2009 p3)
I wonder if this is so different from other sectors. I recall difficult times at Norwich City Council in the 1990s with round after round of cuts; when as managers we had to attend a ‘star chamber’ and justify the continued existence of our service. I remember, despite some success, a palpable sense of bereavement as my own organisation suffered repeated losses of assets and morale. I don’t imagine it is any easier in the current economic climate.
Watson repeats the tale that vice-chancellors like to tell each other – go around your university or college and ask the first ten people who you meet how their morale is and the response will always be ‘rock bottom’. Ask them what they’re working on and the response will be full of life, optimism and of enthusiasm for the task in hand.
This almost certainly applies just as much in public and voluntary organisations. Generally, people care about what they do and they want to make a difference.
Jon Nixon, who writes about the moral bases of academic professionalism, describes academic practitioners as members of a ‘highly differentiated workforce’ having to ‘hammer out their sense of purposefulness within an institutional context which is morally fractured.’ (Nixon, 2008 p14)
Why this matters especially in higher education as opposed to elsewhere is that, according to Nixon, the university is the one place where we can, indeed must, ask awkward questions about why we do what we do.
I couldn’t agree more. In the university we should have the space and the freedom to think the unthinkable. It is what universities are for.
However, Nixon goes on to say that the task is virtually impossible in a context where the leaders of our institutions have ‘deserted the field’. Their abdication of moral responsibility for the university sector as a whole represents a serious ‘failure of nerve’.
Perhaps, as practitioners on the ground we need to become subversive and move into the liminal space that enables us to breathe a different air.
Gary Rolfe, in echoing Bourdieu’s ‘community of unconsciousness’ offers freedom (and possibly happiness) via a parallel existence in his ‘paraversity’ with its ‘organic, fluid, rhizomatic, evolving community of thought’ in which the ‘values-based’ researcher and lecturer have the ‘freedom to be good.’ (Rolfe, 2013)
What a shame his invitation is to academic staff only. His freedom, exercised by a ‘community of critical friends committed to the process of thinking together’ appears to be denied to those who he describes as the ‘ever-expanding administrative class’ thereby implying that the very opportunity to be good is the sole domain of the academic.
I may have ‘moved over’ but I’d like to assert a right for all members of the university, academic and administrative alike, to join in the thinking; to be ‘values-based’, whatever their role, and to experience the freedom to be good.
Why have sides?
Nixon, J (2008) Towards the Virtuous University: The Moral Bases of Academic Practice New York, Routledge
Rolfe, G (2013) The University in Dissent: Scholarship in the Corporate University London, SRHE
Schostak, J (2002) Understanding, Designing and Conducting Qualitative Research in Education, Buckingham, Open University Press
Watson, D (2009) The Question of Morale: Managing Happiness and Unhappiness in University Life, Maidenhead, Open University Press & McGraw Hill Education
As Project Director for the Beacon for Public Engagement based at UEA, I volunteered to do a comedy stand-up routine for Norwich Bright Club in 2011, along with Professor Tim Jickells, Dr Richard Grey and postgraduate researchers Alessia Freddo and Chris Roberts.
Staff and students were joined in the audience by Norwich and Norfolk civic members. I especially recall the late Cllr Jenny Lay, Norwich Lord Mayor who, despite being hit on the head by the bouquet of flowers I threw into the audience, expressed her congratulations on my performance, saying, ‘I didn’t know you had it in you, Julie’. I always admired Jenny’s warmth and compassion and was sad to hear of her passing last year.
Whilst the Bright Club experience proved to be more nerve-wracking than any job-interview or presentation, I was on a high for days afterwards. It was an amazing experience which I highly recommend. View the routine on YouTube or read the script below. My act starts 10 minutes in. I hope it raises a smile.
The Big Idea
Is work making you miserable? Do you want to be happy?
Are you becoming restless, depressed, apathetic or cynical?
You academics out there…are you resenting your students, your colleagues, your institution even? The other day I found a great service called, ‘Escape the ivory tower’. You can use it to ‘examine your own unhappiness’. Coaching is offered that will let you ‘go deep’ and really explore whatever you’re struggling with.
Well, my research does pretty much the same thing. I’m going deep…real deep. I’m going down on 12 very lucky academics. You see, they need to be appreciated. They need to be loved, to feel valued. Yet, in these times when making money rules supreme, we seem to have lost our appreciation of the things that really matter. Such as happiness and pursuing the truth; the truth about things that mean absolutely nothing to the public at large…well, someone’s got to do it.
David Watson, the David Attenborough of higher education, has written a book on Managing Happiness and Unhappiness in University Life. He talked to academics who said,
We don’t have enough money to do our jobs properly but we’re really good at them.
Can’t think what they mean, can you?
We clearly need to boost their morale. We need to make them happy. We need to help them feel connected, somehow engaged. Hmmm engaged…engaged…what makes people happy? Being engaged?
You know, lots of students get engaged at University so we could spread a little happiness and cash in on that. You know, I got engaged when I was at Bangor University? To a young man called Wilf. Didn’t marry him…he met a nice young lady called Alison whilst doing his PGCE. Am I bitter, 30 years on? Maybe…just a little bit…
Didn’t Kate and Wills meet at University?
Did you actually watch the Royal Wedding? What an adoring couple. How nice it is to see two gorgeous young people so much in love. Wasn’t the dress simply wonderful and oh what a stunner. I thought Kate looked fantastic too. Bit caked up maybe. Got to cover up those acne pock marks somehow I suppose.
It’s just been announced that the Palace of Westminster will be available for wedding receptions. Well, I’m not talking alternative wedding venue. I’m talking wedding concept, the total wedding package.
Never mind the big fat royal wedding. I have the big fat university wedding!
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the UEA Wedding Experience – a complete cradle to grave service. World class, carbon neutral, award winning.
For a fairytale experience, UEA’s your concrete castle full of Eastern promise. Explore our labyrinths and exotic subterranean streets.
Now I grant you, the venue may not be instantly appealing – more Gretna grey that Gretna Green. So, if you want a quickie, it’s Gretna Gray, destination UEA. A bit of bunting here and there, maybe draped around the scaffolding. Instead of cleaning the concrete, spay it with glitter!
But it’s not the venue that makes a classic wedding. It’s all the extras – and don’t we have extras at UEA!
Just think of the facilities. Shotgun weddings not a problem. We have a School of Nursing and Midwifery. All services are at hand.
I mean, all services…for you shy young virgins who lack confidence in the bedroom department we can set up special observation points around the campus so you can watch the rabbits. You’ll soon learn.
Our nursery can provide as many cute bridesmaids and page boys as you like, for an extra one-off payment to the parents. Rates negotiable.
For those vital pre-nuptial agreements, our School of Law can offer New Union Practical Treatments Including All Liaison Services – that is, NUPTIALS for short.
Speeches. A wedding is not a wedding without speeches. The School of Literature and Creative Writing! There’s a bunch of scribblers who could do with a bit of extra income. Say, 10p a word, 15p if it rhymes – 75p if it’s funny?
For speech writing, we can set up the Educational Institute for Engagement in Oratory – EIEIO.
Pointless having speeches without a receptive audience. So don’t worry if you’re a little short of guests. UEA can provide a guest list to die for. Any kind you like. Want a refined party with idle chit chat, sipping sherry and nodding sagely – we have pro-vice chancellors, deans, directors and so on. A more cultured lot you could not hope to meet. You want a merry throng, chattering and cheery – we have lecturers and researchers – always game for a laugh. You want a raucous bunch of rebel rousers with a couple of arguments and maybe a fistfight – we have pro-vice chancellors, deans, directors! Wait a minute, they’re in twice. Well, security and maintenance will have to do the sherry and chat.
All those wedding guests you have to invite but don’t actually want? We understand that sometimes it’s necessary to invite those relatives that you really have no desire to see. This is not a problem. We have the solution. We will give them a campus map, some emergency rations and tell them to find room 003.01.03. We guarantee that you’ll never see them…ever again.
It is not even a problem if have no family or friends. You can tack your wedding service onto one of our Congregation ceremonies, coming up soon with a special Star Trek theme this year. Dust off your Klingon outfit. You won’t look out of place. At UEA we really know how to dress up and you’ll be thrilled with the results. Have your photograph taken with our Vice Chancellor, he won’t mind, I’m sure.
Now, I did say ‘low carbon. I don’t mean horse and cart down the Mall – l mean proper low-carbon, environmentally sound weddings. Take the catering. You can have the icing but no cake – there’s a load more food miles in a fruit cake, you know. Think how virtuous you will feel knowing that you’re doing your bit to save the planet. Talking of saving the planet, our School of Environmental Sciences have stacks of shredded emails that would make fantastic confetti.
This could be a true Norwich Research Park Enterprise collaboration. The John Innes Centre can grow you GM flowers that will double up as the salad for the wedding breakfast. And if we’re really pushed, we could buy in some half decent catering from City College Norwich.
Forgotten to buy something for the lucky couple? Stumped for ideas? The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts! They’ve got some very pleasant tat that they can’t possibly want to keep. Anything from cute little Japanese ornaments to those all essential recycled shopping baskets. They could flog a few bits off and make a bit of cash.
So, don’t just think of that job satisfaction, all those boosted academic morals. Think also of the cash that we’ll raise. No longer will engagement be accused of not generating cash.
Prices range from £9,000 to £9,000. Because we’re worth it.
‘Busy in the world as well as in the mind’ The History Man reflections (2)
This is the second of two posts prompted by a reading of ‘The History Man’ by Malcolm Bradbury (1975). I had intended in this post to compare a university that I know today with Bradbury’s fictional University of Watermouth. There are, however, too many features that deserve comment for a blog and I have chosen to focus on just three; activist academics, catering for meetings, and the departmental meeting. And I stray into local government territory – in my experience, higher education and local government rituals can be inter-changeable.
‘Howard is a well-known activist, a thorn in the flesh of the council, a terror to the selfish bourgeoisie, a pressing agent in the Claimants’ Union, a focus of responsibility and concern… busy in the world as well as in the mind’ (The History Man, p3 & p68)
Probably the most well-known ‘activist’ academic in Norwich is the former MP, Ian Gibson, in office from 1997 to 2009. I suspect in earlier days in the late ’70s, as a member of the Socialist Workers Party, he might have been seen with other university colleagues selling the Social Worker outside Norwich City Hall. I certainly don’t recall Ian being a thorn in the flesh of the City Council during my fourteen years as an officer. The Council, led by a strong Labour group, was often more bent on in-fighting; what else was there to do in the absence of a credible opposition? (It was no different in Sheffield in the mid-80s.) Ian did make a great rousing speech at the Assembly Rooms in 1999 when we launched the Council’s Equality Charter, one of my last projects before leaving for a job in the voluntary sector in 2000. Today, as a trustee of the Silver Road Community Centre, he is actively campaigning for the centre as a base for community learning. Perhaps not a thorn in the flesh, but a useful bit of grit in the shoe.
At the City Council today you will find university lecturers, postgraduate researchers and students in the Council Chamber, sitting on the Green benches as elected Members, fifteen strong; now a more credible opposition to the twenty-one member Labour Group and the miserly three member Liberal Democrat contingency. And active – in my final month as Community University Engagement Manager, I received a call from the one of those Green academics, asking if the university could find a way of helping to fund a charity which had just lost its City Council grant. Not long after, I heard lecturer and Green Party Councillor, Rupert Read, interviewed on local radio as he protested against the building of the Norwich Northern Distributor Road. So, like Howard, these academics are busy in the world as well as in the mind but I would say, much better placed to agitate for effective change.
CATERING FOR MEETINGS
‘Two ladies in blue overalls come in with cups of tea and a plate of biscuits and place cups in front of all the people present’ (The History Man, p155)
I arrived at the university in early 2005, towards the end of the tea-lady era. A lady in grey overalls wheeled her tea-trolley around the Registry and the Council House, serving beverages and biscuits to the Vice-Chancellor and his Executive Team. If you asked Val (I think that was her name) nicely, she would service your meetings too as long as your request was logged in the Registry Receptionist’s diary. The Registrar held a tea-party in the Vice-Chancellor’s Office in honour of her retirement and uttered the most eloquent and profound tribute that I’ve ever heard on such an occasion. The last of her kind, she wasn’t replaced.
Catering for meetings can be tricky as it seems we can never go too long without some sort of sustenance. During City Council Housing Committee meetings over lunch in the late ’80s, as a council officer I struggled to make myself heard above the sound of Members slurping their soup. The soup option was later withdrawn; the sandwiches and sausage rolls continued well into the ’90s. Anything, however, was preferable to the sight and sound of chief executive Anne Seex, chewing gum as she presented her reports to the Cabinet Meeting. Observing my glares, she carried on regardless, seemingly oblivious to the effect of her ruminant impersonation.
THE DEPARTMENTAL MEETING
‘he has now prepared for the afternoon by placing here a backfile of bound volumes of the British Journal of Sociology; he is head-down at once, flicking over pages with practised hand’ (The History Man, p153)
At one time I would have been highly irritated at the presence of any distraction at a meeting that took someone’s attention from the agenda. I recall over fifteen years ago, Councillor David Fullman’s habit of texting during Norwich City Council’s Housing Committee meetings. No amount of glaring by me – the housing policy officer presenting her report – would shame David into putting down his gadget. The glaring was pointless (he was looking at his phone) but at least I was displaying my disapproval, should anyone care to notice. But just when I thought he wasn’t paying attention, David would nonchalantly chip in, not only with a correction to a typo in my report that I hadn’t spotted, but with an incredibly insightful contribution to the discussion. No doubt David didn’t realise at the time that he was ahead of the game. Effectively utilising one’s time at meetings is clearly an art.
Today David is not alone. During meetings at the university, many of us habitually log onto our ipads, macbooks, laptops and smartphones, perusing communications, dealing with vital matters during moments when attention is diverted to someone else around the table and even at times, when all eyes are turned on us. No problem. Like soap operas when you’ve missed an episode or two, it’s not difficult to pick up the thread of a departmental meeting after a few, or indeed several, minutes down time. Perhaps I should take a pile of SRHE Research into Higher Education Abstracts into the next meeting and chew my way through those –
The freedom to be exploited: reflections on The History Man
This is the first of two posts prompted by a reading of ‘The History Man’ by Malcolm Bradbury (1975). This post is about why we should contemplate the past, real or imagined. My next post will compare the university as we know it today with Bradbury’s fictional University of Watermouth.
At a recent all-staff admissions conference the marketers proclaimed we must adopt ‘future-facing’ branding and ‘future trends’ as much as possible. We were told we can no longer rely on our old experience because, ‘what we’re facing is new’. I wondered what they meant exactly and was reminded of my late father-in-law who, ever hopeful, would often ask ‘are you looking forward?’ as he earnestly sought affirmation that something better really would turn up tomorrow. In the case of the marketers, however, they’re leaving nothing to chance as they drive the admissions agenda onwards to a brighter, winning future. At the all-staff conference we were regaled with phrases such as, ‘survival of the fittest’, ‘competing head to head with the big boys’ and ‘rules of the game’, and with sporting metaphors. We were told, ‘we HAVE that winning horse’ and as the image flashed across the screen, I was struck by a strong similarity between the horse racing world and universities; both are prone to grand narrative and the glamour of status.
It is exactly this type of future-facing discourse, which, according to Susan Clegg, valorizes only certain forms of reflexivity and limits the ways in which we might think about the future in higher education (Clegg, 2010). I’m concerned about where the compelling narrative of the marketers is taking us, not least because it rules out the option of reflecting on what has gone before, an exercise that just might prevent us from repeating the mistakes of the past.
So, it was at a recent Research in Higher Education & Society Group session that we stopped the clock and took the time to reflect on Malcolm Bradbury’s iconic novel, ‘The History Man’, his ‘darker and more troubled’ take on higher education in the post-war world (Lodge, 2008). Whether or not ‘The History Man’ is a true account of higher education in 1972 – or indeed, of one particular university – we found it a very uncomfortable read.
The Vintage edition cover blurb describes the protagonist, Howard Kirk as, ‘the trendiest of radical tutors at a fashionable campus university. Timid Vice-Chancellors pale before his threats of disruption. Reactionary colleagues are crushed beneath his merciless Marxist logic. Women are drawn by his progressive promiscuity.’
The exchange at our meeting was animated. The veteran male professor, who first read the novel in 1975, was shocked by his second reading – “the abuse of power which was not clear then is abundantly clear now”. The male postgraduate researcher reflected on Kirk’s manipulative strategy centred on fulfilling his desire for control and sexual conquest. To the female researcher, Kirk is a manifestation of what society was like in those days; it was not as unreal as some would imagine. For the male early career researcher, Kirk, as a strategist and bully, serves as a warning from history of what not to become. Even so, the female early career researcher insisted there are characters in higher education today with those same traits as Kirk. The male senior lecturer talked of the ’70s as the beginning of individualism – “Bradbury was constructing sexual and social morality and the bigger picture gave rise to Kirk’s position as new history was being written”. The male international post-doctoral researcher could not comprehend the idea of inviting your students to your home – “this makes for a bad relationship”.
Bradbury described Kirk as, ‘a rogue of rogues, but at least he believed that.’ So, there was self-awareness. Bradbury also stated, ‘No doubt in 1979 he would have voted for Thatcher, and in 1997 for Blair. He would now be enjoying his vice-chancellorship at Batley Canalside University, and the life peerage has been a source of the greatest pleasure. But at least Howard believed – even if it was chiefly for his own advantage – all the things that still do matter. He believed in history, society, philosophy, ideas, human progress, mental discovery, all that’s left of the Enlightenment Project’.
David Lodge describes ‘The History Man’ as having the ‘power to grip even the resistant reader’ (Lodge, 2008). I did find it gripping. Like ‘Stoner’ (John Williams, 1965), it is difficult to put down. However, whilst both novels are adroitly crafted, they provoke very different emotional reactions. A part of my response to ‘The History Man’ is one of repugnance for Kirk, in a similar vein to the revulsion that I experienced when I saw the 1969 road movie ‘Easy Rider’, another iconic representation of that ‘progressive’ period.
Our group discussion reflected on the false promise of those times, when women were free; free that is, to be exploited. I understand this interpretation but worry about the notion of putting the exploitation down to the emergent individualism of the ’70s. A consequence of doing so is the temptation not only to view Kirk’s behaviour as a thing of the past but to blame it on a specific ideology, like it wouldn’t happen here. A similar explanation is used to excuse the conduct of marauding celebrities such as Stuart Hall and Max Clifford, convicted for assaulting girls and young women – it was the culture of the time. Ah well, that explains it, then.
Kirk is not actually asserting his right to self-realisation as he rapes (yes, rapes) his female colleague. His declaration immediately afterwards that the act is inevitable, (‘It was bound to happen…Marx arranged it’) may be tied up in a clever narrative about history (his victim had earlier named him as ‘The History Man’) but that should in no way detract from the violence and abuse committed.
I would like nothing more than to say that the era of the amoral male egoist and predator is over but let’s not kid ourselves.
David Watson, in viewing university history as geology, sets out the higher education sector ‘strata’, denoting the main layers as six distinct waves of development; specialist communities; national and regional institutions serving post-industrial society; public ‘systems of HE’; curriculum and institutional innovation; blurred boundaries and the ‘dual sector’; and the ‘for profit’ sector (Watson 2014) . His analysis mirrors Ron Barnett’s earlier description of the university itself as an intermingling set of narratives that have been laid down over time; rock formations, the separate strata being visible but also running into each other, with old strata reaching up into the new (Barnett 2011).
Judging from recent conversations with colleagues, one noteworthy event in the HE geological timeline, the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 (the Act which converted thirty-five polytechnics into universities), is still uppermost in some minds. In fact, it strikes me that some colleagues have their geologic time clock stuck at 1992. They appear to be fixated on labelling certain institutions as ‘post-1992’; a term that for them signifies a university which in research terms and probably in many other respects is dysfunctional and derisory.
Tell me, what is it in 2014 that still triggers this conditioned reflex?
Barnett, R. (2011). Being a University. London & New York, Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group.
Watson, D. (2014). The Question of Conscience: Higher education and personal responsibility. London, Institute of Education.
This post is prompted by a reading of Philip Roscoe’s publication, ‘I spend therefore I am: the true cost of economics’ (2014) Viking
Roscoe’s wistful and entertaining appraisal of the discipline that is economics provides another useful reference point in my quest to go beyond the technical instruments of capital in my doctoral research analysis. In a previous post entitled, ‘Conviviality with a cause’ I observe Bev Skeggs’ assertion that as sociologists we have a duty not to reproduce the logic of capital in everything we analyse. In applying the logic of capital we convert everything into commodity. We become the subject of capital and we internalise its imperatives. The notion of a commodity or commodification in this context merits closer examination.
Roscoe’s wide-ranging treatise which includes a section on, ‘Lists, rankings and the commodification of education’ highlights the malignant legacy of the Chicago School of Economics and in particular, Becker’s theory of human capital which has helped to, ‘reinforce a myopic understanding of the point and purpose of education.’ Roscoe depressingly describes the ‘subtle repositioning’ of education as, ‘some kind of experiential commodity, like a safari or an adventure day in a hot-air balloon.’
In my post entitled, ‘The marketisation marvel in higher education’, I bemoan the existence of a discourse and managerial structure in higher education that is dominated by enterprise and an emulation of the business world although I do assert that universities are still distinguishable from private sector companies. Roscoe it seems, is less optimistic as he contemplates the commodification of university education which has recast students as customers who, according to Roscoe, do not see that buying a tin of beans from the supermarket is a profoundly different transaction from embarking upon a process of education that requires them to participate, ‘to the limits of their ability, imagination and emotional reserve.’ He echoes Mary Beard when he calls for dissatisfied students who are unsettled by what they have learned and, ‘driven to a critical examination of their preconceptions.’
Has higher education become a commodity? Is it now ‘fungible’ (a term deployed by Roscoe); something that is freely traded; one degree or university being indistinguishable from the next with the ‘student experience’ being the differential?
What other signs are there of commodification in higher education?
At the Engage 2013 Conference in Bristol, Professor Ella Ritchie, Deputy Vice-Chancellor with specific responsibility for Engagement and Internationalisation (University of Newcastle), warned that we were in danger of treating university-community engagement as a commodity. And in my post entitled, ‘Why extreme volunteering is too extreme’, I express concern about the industry that has of late emerged around student volunteering or ‘employability’ as it is called these days and suggest that we are in danger of commodifying the very act of student volunteering.
So, does our use of terms and notions such as ‘capital’ and ‘commodity’ REALLY restrict our ability to critically reflect on these important issues? It seems to me that utilising the concept of commodification in this context actually galvanises the sort of reflection that is so badly needed in higher education today on many levels.
It is sometimes necessary to administer a little jolt!
Roscoe wants us to look beyond the ‘machinery of calculation’; beyond the ‘lists, rankings, scores, tabulations and algorithms that populate our lives’ and says that humans are, ‘distinctive because we can treat others as persons, distinctive in our ability to empathize with, commit to and understand one another, and to build relationships that are strong and mutually nourishing.’
But Roscoe does NOT want us to abandon economics altogether. Instead, he wants us to ‘occupy’ economics; make economics subservient to a higher social and democratic vision.
And why not; the economic lexicon does have its uses.
Bev Skeggs, ‘Values beyond value? Is anything beyond the logic of capital?’
2013 BJS Annual Public Lecture, given at the London School of Economics on 17th October 2013 –
This post is about voluntary action and the research agenda.
In critically appraising the historiography of voluntary action, Rochester embraces notions of ‘conviviality’ and ‘expressive behaviour’, providing a fresh insight into the roots of volunteering. Breaking free of a ‘narrow paradigm’, he looks beyond the restrictive archetype of volunteering as a philanthropic act and explores what he describes as a desire for ‘conviviality’ that is closely allied to recreational activities and the constructive use of leisure time. I don’t believe for a moment that Rochester is claiming we use all our spare time for idle pursuits. I do believe that he is retelling the traditional chronicle and in doing so, providing a new lens through which we may see the act of volunteering as ‘serious leisure’; a term used by Rochester as he works towards his, ‘truly ‘round earth’ map of the territory’.
Rochester draws upon Hemming’s conclusion that participation in volunteer groups provides, ‘a sense of camaraderie and fellowship; a sense of belonging or identity; and above all, ‘an excuse to escape’ and ‘an adult form of play’. It contributes to a sense of community (Hemming 2011). He believes ‘expressive’ volunteering enables people to pursue an interest out of love for the activity rather than financial reward, and to act upon their most cherished beliefs.
In my blog entitled, ‘Why ‘extreme’ volunteering is too extreme’ (31st Jan 2014), I pleaded for us not to ignore the mundane, as without it, society would come unstuck; meeting basic needs, such as having some form of day-to-day human contact via a simple act of kindness, no matter how small:
It’s about community on many levels. Since moving to Great Gransden, for example, I’ve been struck by the way in which the expressive and the mundane are fused in friendships of all kinds, in all scenarios, responding to need, and sharing recreation, joy and troubled times.
I would call it conviviality with a cause.
Rochester also calls for a radical revision of the research agenda in this field. Critical of an academic tradition that has, ‘not produced much in the way of additional ‘usable theory’’ (his ‘honourable exceptions’ include Horton Smith 2000, Lohmann 1992 and Milofsky 2008), he wants research to move away from quantitative methods, that is, collecting evidence by measuring e.g. organisations, resources and time spent on volunteering. Existing qualitative research is also judged to be of limited scope, diverting attention from what volunteers actually do, and how they work together; what is the balance – or tension – between expressive aims (or member benefit) and instrumental aims (or public benefit)?; why and how do people join non-bureaucratic groups?; how is the ‘work’ of the group organised? He says we need qualitative research that develops ‘usable’ theories to explain ‘how things work’.
In attempting to move away from the concentration on measuring the instrumental impacts of volunteering, Rochester looks to the IVR Impact Assessment Toolkit which groups ‘the major ways in which stakeholders can be affected’ into five types of ‘capital’ – physical, human, economic, social and cultural. He clearly approves of this societal level analysis, saying it captures much – but not all – of the constellation of roles and functions played by volunteering. Social capital, for example, contributes to the creation of a ‘more cohesive community through building relationships, networks and bond of trust between people’.
My concern is that having criticised a ‘dominate paradigm’ that characterises volunteering as a gift of time (analogous to a gift of money) Rochester then appears to endorse the notion of capital which itself is contested as a tool of analysis in certain academic quarters. For example, Bev Skeggs, in her 2013 BJS Annual Public Lecture last October, concluded that as sociologists we have a duty not to reproduce the logic of capital in everything we analyse. In applying the logic of capital we convert everything into commodity. We become the subject of capital and we internalise its imperatives.
I am currently grappling with this issue in my own research where I am asking if ‘community’ may be construed as a form of capital and exploring the conditions necessary for the existence of community inside the academy. I am, for example, seeking signifiers of personal, physical and institutional attributes that may reveal the existence of ‘community’ capital. Last week my supervisor asked me how I intended to ‘measure’ these forms of capital. I didn’t have an answer and, to be honest, that doesn’t worry me.
As I work through the final analysis, I am minded to heed Skeggs’ call for us to look for where the theories don’t work, where they can’t be applied. This is where, in my view, Rochester’s plea for us to embrace the expressive and Skeggs’ entreaty for the expression of ‘values beyond value’, come together.
I’m now wondering how ‘community’ may be understood in its expressive form… in 2015 I may have an answer.
Bev Skeggs, ‘Values beyond value? Is anything beyond the logic of capital?’
2013 BJS Annual Public Lecture, given at the London School of Economics on 17th October 2013 –
This is the first of two posts prompted by a reading of Colin Rochester’s publication ‘Rediscovering Voluntary Action: The Beat of a Different Drum’ (2013) Palgrave Macmillan
After 45 years of working with and writing about, volunteers and voluntary organisations, Rochester is better qualified than most to stimulate and inform a debate about the notion of a ‘invented’ unified voluntary and community sector in the UK; to observe the nature of the relationship between government and this sector as it takes on the ‘mainstream’ delivery of state services; to revise the typology of voluntary action; and to call for a radical revision of the research agenda in this field. My second post will be about voluntary action and the research agenda.
Rochester’s seminal work is published against the background of the rise and rise of a neo-liberal discourse that has seeped into every aspect of our lives. It is a refreshing and timely addition to the congregation that is calling for a different approach to how we understand what it is to be a person in the western world; an approach that enables us to acknowledge and embrace expression as a form of sociality and being.
The beginning of the neo-liberal agenda in this country, in this context, is marked as the election of the Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher in 1979 which Rochester sees as a milestone, alongside 1945; a marker of a new phase of political and social history. As many have observed elsewhere, this agenda continued to thrive through the New Labour administrations and we now have a new multi-party consensus about the, ‘parameters and driving forces of public and social policy’. Rochester declares that the rise of neo-liberalism has led to the permeation of voluntary organisations and volunteering by the values and norms of the market as part of a profound and far-reaching change in the political culture, not only of the UK but also of much of the World.
No doubt Rochester would agree that these market values and norms have pervaded many domains of our existence; personal and professional. The marketisation of higher education, for example, observed daily by those of us who work in the sector, gained impetus this month with the publication of the OFT Call for Information on Higher Education in England. In response to the OFT findings, Paul Clarke (Director of Policy at Universities UK), acknowledges that in the opinion of the OFT, some higher education structures and practices, ‘belong to an era that has now passed.’ The parallels between Rochester’s analysis of the voluntary & community sector and what is happening in higher education today are striking.
According to Rochester, the ‘invention’ of a unified voluntary sector in Britain facilitated the casting of voluntary sector organisations in a more central role on the stage of social policy in the delivery of state services. He describes the promotion of a unified voluntary sector as a ‘massive sleight of hand’, whereby the organisational norms of bureaucracy and the culture and practices of the private sector has ensured that the real beneficiaries of this greater role in the provision of state services are the top two percent of voluntary agencies including NCVO and ACEVO, and those in government bent on privatising public services. He says that Government has been able to implement its policies under the cloak of ‘public esteem for charities’ and the argument that voluntary organisations have distinctive characteristics which given them ‘unique’ advantages over statutory bureaucracies.
Rochester questions these ‘distinctive’ characteristics as he observes the increasing homogenisation of the voluntary and community sector. He is not referring to all voluntary organisations but the small minority that have been trusted with this new role of providing state services. He says they are unrepresentative and that they have, ‘more in common with the agencies they have supplanted than they have with the bulk of the organisations that comprise the sector and provide the evidence for the characteristics featured in government rhetoric.’
My experience of working as a manager in the public and voluntary sectors concurs with Rochester’s observations. Indeed, as a boundary-crosser, moving between these sectors (and then into higher education), it could be argued that I have been culpable in transmitting new managerial norms and practices from one sector to the next. Rochester is particularly critical of the infrastructure organisations, the CVSs which have actively played their part through initiatives such as the ChangeUp programme and says that voluntary organisations have been, ‘nudged, bribed and sometimes coerced into becoming more and more similar in their structure and behaviour to the bureaucratic agencies of the state and the market.’
As someone who has been involved with the voluntary sector as a volunteer and as a manager, I have observed the colonisation of some of the larger charities by former local government employees who have in many respects turned their charities into the mirror image of the organisations they had left behind. And in the circumstances you can hardly blame them. As Rochester points out, the biggest voluntary organisations have been given a more central role in the delivery of public services and have gained substantial new resources as a result.
Rochester concludes that the models of business organisations have come to dominate our society and social institutions over the past thirty years. He says that being ‘business-like’ was the ‘desirable characteristic’ and this meant imitating the approaches and techniques used in the private sector without questioning how appropriate and/or helpful they might be in organisations that were based on very different values and principles.
Many of us can bear witness to a similar trend in higher education. What has elsewhere been described as the ‘economic ideology of education’ is a phenomenon much debated. But it is not a recent revelation. In 1890 German university professors complained that their world was increasingly dominated by blind economic processes, by the power of money, and by the weight of numbers (Salter and Tapper 1994). In universities today, this manifests itself in a discourse and managerial structure dominated by enterprise and an emulation of the business world. As a member of the new management clan in a university, I am no innocent bystander though at times it feels like I’m drowning in an alien discourse that bears little or no resemblance to my own academic practice.
According to Rochester, many voluntary organisations have lost sight of their original purposes and functions, and apart from not distributing their profits or surpluses as dividends, they are indistinguishable from private sector companies. I believe that universities ARE still distinguishable from private sector companies.
As the marketisation marvel glides confidently into the admissions arena, I hear colleagues declare “it’s official, we are now a ‘private enterprise’”.
This post represents my own views and not those of my institution.
OFT report: higher education is a market, but the student-university relationship remains unique – UUK Blog posted on 14 March 2014 by Paul Clark
I recently had a conversation about my doctoral research with an acquaintance I met at a dinner dance who asked, ‘what are you doing it in, what are you doing it for?’ Not an unreasonable response. I began my reply by saying that it was in the sociology of education and whilst I was conjuring up an answer to the latter question (it changes from day to day), they retorted in a jocular fashion, ‘the sociology of vegetation? You’re researching vegetables?’ The acquaintance laughed, a little uneasily. Perhaps they had misheard me.
My sense of humour is reasonably well honed but at that particular moment I was not in a frame of mind to see the joke; on them or on me. I hadn’t wanted to be there in the first place. Rather than finding the retort comical, I took it at best to be idiotic and at worst, mocking. I raised my eyebrows and civilly withdrew from the conversation. There was no other exchange on the matter until the end of the evening when we said cheerio and my hapless acquaintance wished me luck with, ‘the vegetable thing’.
How should I have reacted? Maybe I should have given an equally jocular riposte. Moments earlier they had told me about their counselling course and, thinking about the state of my vegetable patch at home, I could have suggested that my parsnips would benefit from some talking therapy. Rather lame, I admit.
So, what is the research about? It’s about community in higher education.
When invited to talk about community, those participating in my doctoral research (all academics) chose to focus primarily on their experience inside the university; that is, on the academic community.
In the ‘80s, Cohen concluded that people construct community symbolically, ‘making it a resource and repository of meaning, and a referent of their identity.’ (Cohen 1985 p118); I invited the research participants to draw upon their repository, to describe their idea and experience of community and also to picture it in some symbolic form. Some began by approaching the question as an intellectual exercise. This was unsurprising. However, as the exchange went on and as we explored values and a sense of belonging, more idiosyncratic thoughts and stories emerged. These stories revealed deeply held values which manifested themselves, not only in their day-to-day academic practice, but also in responses to situations when they felt threatened or excluded by the academic community, or by their institution.
All have a stake in the game of higher education; all believe in the game. They are complicit players in what Bourdieu describes as the, ‘prolonged cohabitation of a socially very homogeneous group’, linked by a ‘cullusio in the illusio’ (Bourdieu 2004 p7). Higher education not only provides their livelihood but, more fundamentally, connects with their values and serves their need to do what they do; research, teach and, in many (but not all) cases, make the world a better place:
‘To the outsider the game may appear insignificant but to the players it becomes the meaning of their life, mystifying the underlying conditions of domination that make the game possible.’ (Burawoy 2010 p24)
Whilst I would question Bourdieu’s description of the academic community as homogeneous, particularly in a contemporary context, I find the notion of ‘complicit players’ worthy of consideration. We are all potentially complicit.
In July 2012, I attended an excellent SRHE (Society for Research into Higher Education) symposium on ‘Structuring Knowledge: new visions of higher education’, where Ron Barnett made an entreaty for the play of the imagination, and for others to enter a dialogic community, and to see their world as he sees it – as a relational entity. At the same session, Gert Biesta reflected on a need for a more accurate account of what is going on in higher education. He called for a ‘non-epistemological’ approach, one that allows for the telling of different stories other than the story of knowledge – stories about what it means to be an academic or a researcher. And whilst in response, Michael Young called for a differentiated epistemology rather than none all (because then, ‘all we are left with is meaning making’), he did acknowledge a need for ‘community’ and for people to feel a part of something; a point that many of those present endorsed.
So, whatever your role in higher education or the vegetable patch; academic, student, administrator, volunteer, collaborator, dean, enthusiast…
what does (academic) community mean to you?
If you need a prompt, click here for a cut-out kit for you to assemble, ‘Communi-Tea Party at the Academy’