(Just Like) Starting Over

“Now it is the autumn again; the people are all coming back. The recess of summer is over, when holidays are taken, newspapers shrink, history itself seems momentarily to falter and stop. But the papers are thickening and filling again; things seem to be happening; back from Corfu and Sete, Positano and Leningrad, the people are parking their cars and campers in their drives, and opening their diaries, and calling up other people on the telephone . . . Everywhere there are new developments, new indignities; the intelligent people survey the autumn world, and liberal and radical hackles rise, and fresh faces are about, and the sun shines fitfully, and the telephones ring.”

The History Man – Malcolm Bradbury

New developments, new indignities. Some perform their indignities, some have them thrust upon them. While many labour under increasing pressures and are forced into indignities, there remains a, privileged, few in the loftier perches of the ivory tower that seem to habitually perform indignation from positions of relative comfort. Just as Bradbury observed through the acerbic whit of his “campus” novels.

In some ways this also speaks to a particular kind of sociological imagination of academia – the academic as an empowered, perhaps even powerful, individual. An individual with time and resources. That imagined individual was also, largely, male and white. It is also a satirical reflection upon the ‘radical’ academic – perceived as all bluster and little action perhaps – but also situated in a radical time – Howard Kirk, the protagonist, was a university lecturer of the 1970s. The radical pedagogue has, however, cast a long shadow from the late 20th century into the present. Some might argue this is the impetus for worthy activities like the Volunteer University, others might suggest such apparent ‘radicalism’ is a performance that shields morally questionable actions. The allusion to Corfu and Sete, or even Leningrad (now St Petersburg), perhaps also speaks of a different time – though I am not old enough to know – in which academics could afford (both in terms of time and money) to go away.

The “radical hackles” of the 2018 UK academic are perhaps frayed, with ongoing disputes over pensions and pay and uncertainties over the future of university funding. Many of us are perhaps performing the Beckett-like refrain We must go on. We can’t go on. We’ll go on. (Waiting for Godot). Term begins – even if for some it does not feel like it really, truly, ended – and we are pressed onwards.

“The recess of summer” has, for many, simply disappeared, if it ever really felt like it existed. The ‘summer term’ of exams and then post-exam activities creeps ever onwards into the time that was once jealously guarded for research. The ‘referred’ or ‘deferred’ assessments (resits or extensions) crash through the frail membrane of summer and drag the mind back to marking schemes and intended learning outcomes.

The return to term-time is often fraught. Sometimes it is simply the things we say to each other in the corridor:

How are you doing? How’s your start of term?
I’m surviving!
Only eleven weeks to go, ha ha ha

Sometimes, and especially in recent years, the churn of change – new management directives, shifts in organisational make-up – conspire to make the seemingly simple task of turning up in the right room, with the right group of students, at the right time, rather difficult.

“Fresh faces are about” at the beginning of term and we meet new and not-so-new students with a seemingly increased frequency, yet it can often feel like we only seem to know them less. Bouncing from one one-hour session to another, between year groups and perhaps between programmes, it can feel like we see more of the students but it is only from the front of a lecture theatre – a series of faces peering over a sea of glowing laptop logos.

Nevertheless, the sun shines, as it always seems to in September. Conversations begin and grow. Sometimes we can just stop to witness the changing of the season. In amongst the melee, you can sometimes, just sometimes, find the time to find yourself and try to laugh at the absurdity of those new initiatives, the new indignities. Starting all over again.

(Just Like) Starting Over – John Lennon

Protection -18 September

[Due to family commitments and the beginning of the school year I haven’t been able to post for a while – so this post has been rattling around my head for a couple of weeks.]

There are various times in the pattern of working life in academia when we are thrown together. Conferences, training sessions, ‘away days’ and even the picket line all push us together in ways that breaks the ordinary pattern and in that mixing together we might either blend or jumble. Mixing also creates friction. Some friction can be productive; it can produce action. In 2018 the energy of the picket line during the USS pensions strike produced a lot of action, not least the creation of alternatives sources of knowledge about the USS pension scheme and it’s sustainability. Some friction wears people down, and that can often be experienced unequally (not least along lines of class, race and seniority).

The recent period in British university life has felt, to me, rather fraught. I acknowledge that this is based on rather limited experience and those with longer careers might see things differently. Nevertheless, I suggest (and of course I am not the first) that there have been a couple of defining moments that have asked searching questions of all of those that work in universities.

The first, perhaps longer-running, moment is the shift towards the university-as-a-business – with a culture of targets (income, student numbers etc), which has led to league tables, such as the Times Higher World University Rankings “Top 100”, becoming the go-to yardstick for many university leaders and arguably contributed to what my colleague Clive Barnett has highlighted as a crisis of legitimation for universities. Targets have been set not only for institutions and departments but also individuals. This has had the effect of colleagues feeling atomised and individualised.

The second, is the rather insidious recent move towards the UK government directing universities to perform border enforcement, for international students and international staff alike. Les Back writes about this through the example of the experiences of one particular international student in his Academic Diary and the distress such suspicion causes for those we ought to be welcoming*.

In both of these moments in British university life, those of us working in universities are pushed towards forms of friction – of competition and suspicion of and with one another and of our students. Both of these moments too also invite a reconsideration of what had perhaps begun to feel for some an old-fashioned or out-moded concept: solidarity.

If the friction of competition and suspicion, of atomisation and mistrust, wears down and isolates us then a perhaps a key emollient is to act in solidarity. Simply put (following Barnett’s reading of Iris Marion Young), I think this means (ethically) to share responsibility – for/to one another, for (in)action and non-domination. Solidarity means thinking about one another and acting together and on behalf of one another. Solidarity is a shared mechanism of protection.

In a session on possible futures for UK Higher Education at the RGS-IBG conference in Cardiff (2018), James Esson made a crucial, simple and powerful point: solidarity means acknowledging the humanity of one another. We get nowhere by denying one another’s humanity. It is distressing that in the everyday banality of ordinary working life, outside of the adrenaline high of the picket and other extraordinary moments, we slip all-too-readily back into habits of individualism and mistrust. As Esson says: we must strive to acknowledge one another’s humanity, I’d like to think we are all capable of this.

* See the Students not Suspects campaign.

Protection – Massive Attack

Not your kind of people – 22 August

The everyday rhythm of British academic life is bound up with shifting contexts. At least from my perspective. Much of this is perhaps about negotiating the age-old British preoccupation with class. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued this is about shifting your performance of yourself to fit in with the context you currently occupy – to achieve what he called ‘cultural capital’. In my case, this causes me to pay attention to a few things on a regular basis – accent, clothes and (for want of a better phrase) talking points. As anthropologist Erving Goffman suggested, we are all, perhaps, attempting to avoid social stigma*.

Unlike some other parts of the UK, the Bristolian accent is not well-loved and often derided as connoting a broad West-country stereotype of a foolish farmer. Either that or the sneering caricature of working class Bristolian – Vicky Pollard, performed in “Little Britain” by a Bristol university graduate (the stigma of class, see?). In the barbers or dropping my children at nursery it is acceptable, perhaps even desirable, to allow or accentuate my regional accent. Doing so denotes something like belonging – trying to avoid the stigma of being an ‘outsider’. I can only imagine that it must surely be more complicated, and more fraught, when the perceived differences are somehow thought to be greater – such as being seen as ‘foreign’. We all attempt to mask our differences to ‘pass’.

Transitioning to campus, for me, means feeling like it is necessary to straighten out vowels and ensure crisp consonants. Many of our students perform a very particular version of ‘standard English’ that I cannot really mimic, but I think probably subconsciously attempt it. In the last year or so I have tried to allow myself to relax into my ‘normal’ accent at work. Perversely it actually takes some conscious effort. The subconscious cues for fitting in, for negotiating class context, and for performing what I perhaps have internalised as a ‘professional persona’ has always meant, I think, dropping the Bristolian. It can be uncomfortable. Those cues for stigma, as Goffman argued, are strong.

Clothing, as a system of signification and stigma, is another complicated thing to negotiate. You might want to appear professional, or trendy, or both. Many of my fellow travellers on trains are in a form of ‘casualised’ business clothing. Depending on your discipline, or department, academics can try to appear non-conformist, trendy or professional and business-like, or any point between. Sometimes you can sort of guess in which department a colleague works by virtue of their dress. Likewise, you can currently pick out a certain class of ‘professional services’ manager at my university because they all seem to wear very blue suits. Again, this concerns the negotiation of social stigma and attempting to ‘pass’. Wearing the right sort of clothes, sporting the right brands (or none), is bound up with signalling fitting in. I don’t envy our students for whom this is a social minefield.

Getting ‘too old’ (or feeling it) for some of the more mystifying cycles of trends has felt liberating for me – even though I more-or-less avoided (intentionally or not) ever being ‘trendy’. However, there is something about performing authority that is bound up in how we dress. Rather than ‘fit in’ with the students this is about ‘fitting in’ with the context – being ‘the academic’, ‘the teacher’. I have a jacket on a peg in my office that I sometimes feel I should wear for teaching, especially for the large first year lectures. I am sure that many colleagues feel the same. I am also sure that some of the feelings about performing status and so on are much sharper for colleagues who are not male or white. It is, sadly, clear from student surveys that if you fit the apparent stereotype of a middle aged white male professor you have a much higher chance of receiving positive feedback.

Those of us that are broadly ‘social scientists’ sometimes face the challenge of ‘passing’ in new contexts as part fieldwork. We must enter and inhabit different contexts that may be unfamiliar, attempt to build a rapport with people that have different rituals of identity and elicit data about aspects of their lives for our research. In some respects then, the preparation for ‘the field’ is a way of working out how you might ‘pass’ in a new context. How you signal to your research participants that you fit in, at least enough for them to participate in a productive way. This is perhaps why I, still, feel that I am not that good at field work. ‘Passing’ is hard work.

I have come to understand that I am not very good at the negotiation of moving between contexts. Sometimes I/we get stuck in-between. It is sometimes not enough to look or sound like you ‘pass’. For example, you might need to find ways of talking about football with your neighbour over the fence and rugby or lacrosse with your students. You might be sympathising with friends because none of you can afford a family holiday this year while trying to show enthusiasm for your students’ latest ski trip. More established or older colleagues may fulfil the David Lodge style stereotype of accosting you with tales of taking their family to the South of France for two to three weeks. Early career and younger colleagues may elicit sympathy for their striving to save every penny for a deposit for a house or simply trying to pay the rent.

In many respects, for me, the context and expectations of academia and the kinds of lifestyle academics can lead has changed. Many of us still aspire to (and even achieve) the solidly middle class trappings of home ownership, holidays abroad, attending conferences, going on overseas sabbatical visits and so on. However, the funds to do this have diminished, if they were ever there. When reading academic reminiscences in journals about how one well-known professor met another whilst on sabbatical or at a far-flung conference and then was able to invite them to visit their own institution it feels like another world. Like many workers in all sorts of contexts, some academics now face attempting to ‘pass’ in a context that perhaps feels distinctly out of reach.

The performances of ‘fitting in’ can feel like you are left in-between – that you no longer ‘belong’ in one place or another. As many ex-pats and migrants have suggested, when you leave the context of ‘home’ and attempt to fit into another you can appear or feel like you do not ‘authentically’ pass in either. The subtle observations from your friends at ‘home’ that you have somehow changed might be matched by not quite feeling like you are wholly accepted in your new context either. While the stakes are undoubtedly much lower, there are ways in which travelling between the context of ‘university’ and ‘home’ leaves you in a social (perhaps class) limbo.

With perhaps the most significant British geography conference of the year next week, like many, my mind turns to how to fit in there. Remembering the sorts of current institutional and disciplinary preoccupations that will form the topics of gossip, worrying over how best to present yourself – dress smart? mask the accent? – and wondering how to ensure that you ‘pass’ in the socialising that is the glue that holds together a conference and, perhaps, a career. My approach is to attempt to be generous – to try to be inclusive, to listen, to compliment – many of us must feel in the same boat and so to modestly attempt to create your own little context of welcoming others seems to me to be the most fitting response to the anxieties of stigma.

If you’re going to the RGS-IBG conference in Cardiff next week (last week of August 2018) I hope it goes well. Please do feel free to say “hi”, it would be lovely to talk to you.

* Some discussion of Bourdieu’s and Goffman’s respective work and how this ties to these themes is on the Sociology Lens blog here: https://www.sociologylens.net/topics/communication-and-media/speech-identity-and-losing-the-accent/12841

Not your kind of people – Garbage

Steal my sunshine – 15 August

Writing in the summer is what we’re supposed to be doing as academics. This entry started on a quiet train plodding into Devon, I type into my laptop but these words are not for the book proposal or grant application I am supposed to be writing. Nevertheless, it seems best to begin with some kind of beginning. Mine is not particularly original. I have been bothered by a number of things over this summer that more-or-less boil down to feeling the passage of time. Our eldest child begins school in September. I am no longer, by ‘official’ measures, ‘Early Career’. I have been given a little more responsibility in my department.

I have been reading Les Back’s Academic Diary and it provides an impetus for me to mark this passing of time. This will be my own, more modest, occasional academic journal – (I hope) not for pretentious reasons, for self-promotion and so on. Rather my motivation is because I think writing (for me) is like a muscle and it needs to be exercised. Just as my physical attempts at exercise are poor and I am trying to address that, I also feel the need to create a habit of writing again. I sincerely hope I can both stick to this and get better at doing it. It is a form of learning-by-doing. Ultimately, I want to write this. I want to because I love my job and academia, in spite of it’s (or ‘our’) weirdnesses.

As Les Back wonderfully evokes in his book, academic work-life is seasonal. It has a rhythm. I think I have come to understand that I am instituionalised in that way, as I suspect many if not all academics are, and I actually like it. Being habituated can do funny things though. There is, perhaps, a habit amongst many of us to bond and to mark the progress of the year through moaning. Each season has its moans. The unspoken custom of academia is the expectation that the answer to “how are you doing?” is some form of (perhaps affected) more-or-less harmless seasonal moan or simply an exclamation: “I’m surviving!”. The summer marks, amongst the relief or trial (depending on your circumstances) of holidays and other things, the inflated expectations of productivity, with the self-delusional and overly-optimistic targets for writing, institutional anxieties about the National Student Survey, and the half-remembered, yet increasing, administrative responsibilities of deferred or referred assessments.

The summer rolls from heatwave into drizzle and the peculiar anxieties of the season – of exhaustion following the exam season, of the shift in pattern to (mostly) lone working, of the perceived urgency to write for publication. In July the bittersweet culmination of the formal academic year is graduation. The institution lavishes praise and prosecco on students and their expectant, hopefully proud, parents. Caps are ceremonially doffed, prizes are awarded, genial if awkward conversations with parents ensue and another cohort leaves. Unlike Back, it seems my institution has few first-in-the-family graduates. So far I have attended graduation only once, for various reasons – mostly childcare. It amazes me though how little we appear to know our departing graduates, aside from the alarming number of mental health issues – and this is a very partial picture. Perhaps this is a condition of scale, of larger group sizes. Perhaps it concerns the ways we now negotiate the lecturer-student relationship. It saddens me though.

Like many, in August my mind turns to the rapid approach of a fixture of the British academic geographers’ calendar – the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) annual conference. The promise, or hope, of encountering new ideas, finding inspiration and testing out the ideas that you have been working with – whether it be all year or for the fortnight running up to the conference. It is the opportunity to catch-up with friends old and new, to forge new links and alliances and to negotiate the peculiarities of intellectual (and other) disagreements or rivalries (knowingly or not). I have grown to enjoy this annual event but only relatively recently. As Malcolm Bradbury wrote of his protagonist in Eating People in Wrong: “Not too many years behind [me are] the wet and lonely days of postgraduate research”. When I was an ‘early career’ academic, from PhD into ‘proper job’, conferences were a source of anxiety and severe self-doubt. More words are needed than I can devote here, a topic for another entry perhaps.

As August wanes, post-16 exam results* mark the climax of the ‘silly season’, with the associated pictures of young women jumping in the air clutching pieces of paper, and the rehearsal of arguments about the ‘dumbing down’ of further education and the perceived (mostly financial) value (or not) of a degree. The institutional marketing apparatus bursts into a frenetic period of action and we lurch towards term with the momentum of a heavy vehicle that once going is tremendously hard to stop.

The rhythm begins to shift. Self-determined schedules give way to institutional timetables – even in advance of official term-time. For me, the RGS-IBG conference marks the end of summer. My attention turns (even more) to teaching. Like many colleagues, I must surpress a sigh as non-academic friends persist in the misconception that I have had three months off and must be marvellously rested. In the cooling air and faintly lengthening shadows, term awaits with new beginnings for staff and students alike.

* In the UK we have exams at 16 (GCSEs) and at 18 –’A levels’ mostly-upon which offers of university places are more-or-less conditional.

Steal my sunshine – Len

Unformed thoughts on doing ‘work’ – 1 August

I was sitting in my office, which I actually really like (for reasons which may be explained in a bit), when I began writing this post – thinking about the tendency at present for sitting alone in an office to be the sort of ‘everyday’ norm. I suspect this is a common experience for many academics. I also recognise that it is actually a privilege to have my own office, something I really do value, but that’s not the focus of this post. I am also near certain that others have written much the same thing before in different guises. What I want to do is argue for the keeping or reinstating of ‘common rooms’, not for nostalgic reasons but for pragmatic ones.

Summer working in a building that is mostly empty, and so sitting alone quite a bit of the time, makes me think about the nature of my job at present. It also prompts me to remember what it was like five years ago when I started the job I currently have. It makes me think of the stripping away of things that some might think of as quaint, old fashioned, out-of-date and superfluous but I tend to think might actually be really important to the efficient functioning of academic institutions.

We used to have a “Senior Common Room” at the end of my corridor. It was just the one, shared, PGR/staff ‘common room’ for a very large building (the Amory building, in Exeter, is a warren and is home to about seven departments) but it had a little café, the people that worked there were nice – you knew them by name, and it meant that colleagues would gravitate there.

This was a space colleagues would choose to go to. Where possible, patterns I had become used to in other institutions were sort of observed – people would go for coffee around 10:45, some still do, and often arrange to be there for lunch too. This was a room in which you would feel comfortable to take a visiting academic, you may well bump into colleagues. You could learn what others are working on, maybe share tips about mundane teaching issues (the speakers in that seminar room still don’t work etc). Some years ago I doorstepped a colleague at a London university whilst killing time in advance of an event and was taken to a nice, if well-worn, common room and we bumped into colleagues and I learned things I do not think I otherwise would have.

Now, this post is not merely the yearnings of a privileged white male academic pining for a time that only really existed, and was sent up, in campus novels by Bradbury and Lodge. Neither do I want to rehearse that peculiar line about how academic life is special and different. I think many of the issues here are relatable to other kinds of work. Nevertheless, I do think that the kinds of work we do are made better, work better, if we are able to talk and share ideas in ways that are conducive to that communcation taking place. While I think they help – I do not think that a social media channel or email list is sufficient. I guess, this post is also prompted by an anecdote that I’d like to relate, something I observed a while ago but that has stayed with me.

I was looking for our relocated administrators, now no longer ‘geography’ but paired back and blitzed together into a ‘hub’ for the whole building (yes, all seven departments). I was dithering along an unfamiliar corridor on another floor of my building, following room numbers, when I happened across a group of academics talking. Mugs in hand they were stood speaking in semi-hushed tones, somewhat conspiratorially. As I came closer and overheard their conversation it was the usual sort of mix of teaching and research chat. I passed on, in search of the elusive administrators. Having completed my task and returned down the corridor I again passed the group of colleagues stood in the same place talking. Around 15 minutes later I needed to return to the admin office and so strode more confidently back down the same corridor to find the group of colleagues had been augmented by a couple and an impromptu, semi-casual, research meeting was taking place.

I suppose the reason this brief, fairly unremarkable, episode has stuck with me is that this is the reality of working in my building. You talk in corridors, there is nowhere else to go. The ‘common room’ is still sort of there. It has shrunk to accommodate further offices and has been redecorated in the soulless corporate style you will recognise if you work in a university. There are no facilities – so you need to find one of the small kitchens to make your own tea or coffee in advance. We can book seminar rooms for meetings, but that requires notice and you’re told off if you are caught taking in your coffee. Of course teaching rooms are not necessarily conducive to certain kinds of discussion either, with rows of tables and so on.

In the meantime, the building is subject to wall-shaking redevelopment to accommodate the new student ‘hub’, taking the place of our departmental offices. There will be a café and social space for the students. So, many of us drink coffee and eat lunch at our desks and will continue to do so. Some go to the cafés on campus, but I find them rather expensive and it wastes a lot of time with crossing campus and queuing. It is also tacitly clear that these facilities are not intended for staff, they are really for students.

Quite a lot of colleagues work from home when they do not ‘have to’ be on campus. This is difficult for me. We no longer have a ‘spare’ room and so I sit at a desk in the corner of the kitchen. I have no space to store work-related things and so when working from home I have to remember to bring books etc. back and forth in my bag. It is by no means terrible but I find it hard to work from home. I like having an office – all of the things it enables. I would like to bump into colleagues more too. Sitting alone in an office is helpful for concentration and ‘getting things done’ but it is not helpful if it’s the only thing you do. It can be isolating. I value those times when colleagues take the initiative and knock on the door to chat but it can also be an inconvenient moment, with a crying student etc.

Space to meet is, I think, important for a happy and effective working environment in a university department. It also requires a commitment from us, the ‘workers’ to perform the function of commonality – we need to make the time. A common refrain is that there is no time, and I suspect that really is true for many, but even if it’s just once a week, or every so often, I’d like to think that taking the time to be with colleagues and to learn about what they’re doing is an uncontroversially positive thing to do. If we also argue for a little more time to enable this, then all sorts of positive research collaborations, teaching innovations and so on might actually arise – not because of top-down pressure from a person with “chancellor” in their job title but because we actually like to do our jobs.

I am not arguing for the reinstatement of some sort of peculiar system in which a particular class of academic staff can remain aloof in their “Senior Common Room”. I am arguing that, given the kinds of work we do, providing a space to talk, to connect – actually makes us more healthy and more productive. I would also argue that, as lovely as they can be, sometimes you just need to do this away from the students.

For all we might (perhaps rightly) castigate and deride companies like Google, they do understand and take seriously that people work better when there are common spaces and facilities to support less-formal ways of being together. It leads to more productive workers, I am confident that they wouldn’t be doing it otherwise – however ‘cool’ it might look.

So, a modest plea – fight for your common room and use it. I don’t think I’ve taken that seriously enough, so I’ll try too. We don’t know what we’ve got til it’s gone.