Monthly Archives: February 2014

It’s about the (academic) community, stupid!

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’


Bourdieu, P. (2004) Sketch for a Self Analysis, Polity Press

Burawoy, M. (2010) Conversations with Pierre Bourdieu: the Johannesburg Moment

Cohen, A.P. (1985) The Symbolic Construction of Community, Taylor & Francis

Choosing books, living life

Life is what happens while you’re busy choosing books

(with apologies to John Lennon)

Eating together as a family, especially mid-week,  is an aspiration for many as they juggle the various extra-curricular activities of the younger members whose diaries are busier than those of their beleaguered parents.  No matter what, however, there is always time for choosing books.

In the‘60s and early ‘70s, as children we frequented Heffers Children’s Bookshop in Cambridge, where every week I would spend my pocket money on a paperback; often a Puffin or Green Knight imprint, for anything between 2/6 (12 ½ new pence) and 4/- (20 new pence).  The staple diet included Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories – Julian, Dick, George, Anne and Timmy the dog having ‘absolutely wizard’ adventures; Willard Price’s Adventure stories – Hal and Roger’s adventures in search of wild animals for the world’s zoos, tackling poachers and helping scientists.  (I wonder what Price would make of Copenhagen Zoo’s recent killing of Marius the giraffe); Philippa Pearce’s ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’; Frances Hodgson Burnett’s ‘The Secret Garden’; Penelope Farmer’s ‘Charlotte Sometimes’; Lucy M. Boston’s Green Knowe stories; C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles and Scott O’Dell’s ‘Island of the Blue Dolphins’.

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More significant purchases included the 1969 Hamlyn edition of ‘Tell me Why’ by Leokum, ‘answers to over four hundred questions that intelligent young people ask.’

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In 1972/3, I was awarded a first year prize at Chesterton School, presented by Les Brown, our head teacher – who walked around the school wearing a black gown (and who once stood in for our maths teacher and spent the whole lesson talking about the Second World War).  I chose two books; the Thames & Hudson hardback ‘A concise history of France’ by Douglas Johnson (£2.25) and the New English Library paperback edition of ‘Burke & Hare: The True Story of the Bodysnatchers’ by Hugh Douglas (40 new pence).

Heffers Childrens Bookshop


Consequently, this image of the interior of Heffers’ Children’s Bookshop, taken in the late ‘60s, is very familiar.  Note the absence of the paraphernalia that you tend to get in children’s bookshops today.  Like children’s diaries, the bookshops were less cluttered in those days.  The focus was the books.  Choosing was always a delight but never took long (it took more time to queue for our wares at Sainsbury’s meat and cheese counters afterwards) and I would be even more delighted if the need arose to use the oak library steps to reach a particular volume.

My family had had a long association with Heffers.  It began with the employment of my great-grandfather, Mr Frederick Anstee who worked for the company for forty-seven years (starting at the age of thirteen!).  On his death in 1944, E. W. Heffer wrote in the trade journal,

‘We are grieved to announce the death suddenly, on Sunday June 18th, 1944, of Mr Frederick Anstee, of 27 Humberstone Road, Cambridge, aged 60 years.  Mr Anstee entered our employment as a boy, forty-seven years ago, and by most faithful, conscientious and capable service he rose to be head of our science department.  He was known, appreciated and respected by a great number of eminent scientists throughout the world.’

The Bookseller, 22nd June, 1944

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This is Heffers at Sidney Street c1937 Coronation: source: Winifred Anstee’s papers

I plan to write more about my family and Heffers (especially Frederick’s daughter, Winifred Anstee and grandson, Bryan Anstee) in another posting.

We also regularly used the Cambridge city library; initially when it was in the Guildhall (now Jamie’s Italian, I understand), and then in Lion Yard where it became the Central Library from the mid-‘70s.  Much of Petty Cury, where Heffers had stood (and where we used to visit my great-aunt, Winifred Anstee, in her office), was demolished in the controversial Lion Yard scheme.  During the development, I recall one terrible day when my friend, Daphne Bird, was told that her Dad had been killed whilst working on the building site.  I often think of that when going into town, even now.

In the ‘60s I had to undergo regular visits to the opticians.  I didn’t mind that so much. It was a chance to skip school, and to sit and read Rupert the Bear annuals in the snug little waiting room.  I did mind, however, having to wear the plastic blue NHS spectacles and especially, having to spend the occasional week with a fabric plaster stuck over one of the lenses just to get my lazy eye to work that much harder.  I guess reading under the blanket with a torch at night when I was supposed to be going to sleep didn’t help make my eyes any better.

The late ‘70s brought the ‘O’ Level and sixth form ‘A’ Level reading lists, including Signet Classic, New Penguin and New Swan paperback editions of Shakespeare (60 new pence), Penguin editions of Lawrence (22 ½ new pence), Austen (75 new pence) and Solzhenitsyn (90 new pence) (I was intrigued when I heard that Russian dissident Vladimir Bukovsky had moved into our road and so much wanted to meet him but never did); Picador editions of Garcia Marquez (£1.50), Pan editions of Hardy (75 new pence) and Penguin Modern Classic editions of Forster (£1.25).  There were many second-hand purchases, of course, some less literary than others.  Memorably, the Pan edition of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, a short novel by John Burke based on the screenplay by Alun Owen (“John, Paul, George and Ringo hit London – in this hilarious, action-packed novel, based on their wonderful first film.”) was frivolous and fun.

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The ‘80s brought the undergraduate reading list, sparked by my growing and active interest in mental health, poverty and women’s rights.  Mum’s sociology books formed the start of my collection.  These included the Penguin Education edition of Worsley et al’s ‘Introducing Sociology’ (75 new pence) Pelican editions of Coates & Silburn’s, ‘Poverty: The Forgotten Englishmen’ (75 new pence), and Young & Willmott’s, ‘Family and Kinship in East London’ (25 new pence or 5/-).  Purchases of my own, made with my student grant, and that I still treasure, include the Pelican paperback of Oakley’s ‘House Wife: High Value-Low Cost’ (£1.95) and of Pizzey’s ‘Scream Quietly or the Neighbours will Hear’ (£1.50); Pelican editions of Goffman (£1); Picador’s edition of Coote & Campbell’s ‘Sweet Freedom: The struggle for Women’s Liberation’ (£1.95); the Quartet edition of Ralph Miliband’s ‘The State in Capitalist Society’ (£2.25); the Macmillan Press series on Critical Texts in Social Work and the Welfare State (in particular, Norman Ginsburg’s ‘Class, Capital and Social Policy’); a Pelican edition of The Communist Manifesto with an introduction by A.J.P. Taylor (£1.00)  (as I wrote in my previous blog on extreme volunteering, this was a time of my involvement in student community action, all inspired and informed by these publications), and the Hutchinson edition of T.H. Marshall’s ‘Social Policy’ (£3.50).  At the time our family was acquainted with the Marshalls and I was young enough not to be inhibited in conversations with Tom (T.H.) about his notion of welfare capitalism as we strode out on long walks in the Lake District.

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The ‘90s and 00s saw a revival of the Saturday morning library routine but now in Norfolk, initially with George to East Dereham library, and then also with Phoebe on trips to North Walsham library.  We used the libraries extensively not just for books but now also for videos.  We purchased books of course despite not having Heffers at hand.  I treasured the time with the children at the library, not least because it got me away from the grind of the weekend housework which usually took the rest of my Saturday.  Favourite publications included Orchard’s edition of Anholt’s, ‘Good Days, Bad Days’ (£3.50) and ‘One Hungry Baby’ by Coats & Hellard (£3.50).

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The difference about the ‘90s routine was that it included a breakfast outing, at Woolworth’s café in East Dereham, and at The Dutch Oven (then named Christopher’s) in North Walsham, and the weekly purchase of sweets (for the children, of course).  Phoebe was just a week old when introduced to the Saturday routine but it wasn’t long before she too was walking along the top of the wall past the North Walsham post depot on the way to the library exclaiming ‘mind the crocodile!’ as she went.  Our second-hand purchases were often made in charity shops.  It was in the cellar of the Break Charity shop in North Walsham, one Saturday morning in 2002, that we got the call that George and Phoebe’s granddad had sadly passed away.  And then, just four years later, I was on the Saturday morning routine with George, Phoebe and Betty (my mother-in-law), when Betty had a massive stroke from which she never recovered.  George, twelve at the time, went in the ambulance with his grandmother whilst I drove with Phoebe to the hospital.

Things happened.  The Saturday routine occasionally involved the unexpected; happy and sad.

It wasn’t just on Saturdays and in Norfolk that we sought out books – or experienced events.  George was once locked in a bookshop at the end of the day on a family holiday in Galway in 2003, whilst seeking another volume by Darren Shan, a favourite author.  On another occasion, he took his entire collection (a full back pack) to a book signing; Shan kindly signed every copy.  Another memorable authorial encounter, particularly for George, was a visit by the East Anglian Writers Group to our home in North Norfolk.  Clive King, who penned an old favourite, ‘Stig of the Dump’, had come along.  This was a time of ‘series’ such as the Spiderwick Chronicles, Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events and of course, Harry Potter.  Phoebe got into Jacqueline Wilson’s social realism – she liked the stories but criticized the writing and would often complain, “too many ‘ands’, Mum”.

I still visit bookshops, new and second-hand, and libraries, but the Saturday morning routine is no more; neither is the housework and for that I’m thankful.  George is in his first year at Durham University, spending most of his Saturdays at rugby, and Phoebe has a Saturday job in a sandwich bar in North Walsham.  Trevor and I have carefully packed away many of the children’s books.  These are now in storage, waiting for the time when the children, and their books, can have a home of their own.

Perhaps one day, George and Phoebe will have their own Saturday book and library routines with their own children, and perhaps unexpected experiences too.  That will only be possible, however, if bookshops and libraries survive.  Without them, we may only get our books online.

How dull would that be?