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.
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.