Friday, 16 June 2017

The best I can say is, it's been another week.

I've (almost) nothing to say this week. Personally, it's been one of banal but necessary administrative labour the details of which I won't burden you, and one of social horror out there. This morning I watched a billionaire with a number of palaces make polite conversation with those burned out of their homes by capitalist greed, while yesterday the political figurehead of said capitalist greed took time out of her self-interested negotiations with the representatives of 17th-century Planter Bigotry to visit Grenfell without meeting any of her victims. What more is there to say?

Back here, it's results week: some of the students are thrilled, some are OK, some are resigned and others are very unhappy, and I'm hearing from all of them. Most of those who've failed or marginally passed have clearly worked hard, while a small minority fail because through lack of effort, and an even smaller minority cheat, but the key thing at this point is to encourage personal responsibility while not being a dick about it. We talk to those who come to see us about their academic practice and support them through the resit process, and we worry about those who for various reasons don't come to see us. I usually point out, too, that we submit work to journals and publishers and rarely get things accepted first time round.*

I'm keeping up culturally too: last night I went to a poetry reading organised by a PhD student and one of my ex-students, featuring their own work plus their favourite regional poets. It was really good - a range of styles and subject matter, and uniformly good delivery which isn't always the case. Sadly only one English student came along, and not a single Creative Writing student or teacher. No doubt they all had good reasons but it's a bit disheartening for the artists.

Except for the one on fan fiction-erotica and neoliberalism I wrote with one of my PhD students. Straight in! With the added joy of slightly freaking out the reviewers and editor. You quote one story about humans mating with anthropomorphised cats…


Friday, 9 June 2017

Musical and Political Twists

What an odd 18 hours or so. My emotions – so far as I have any – are mixed. The joy is easy: my arch-nemesis Paul Uppal lost resoundingly. His campaign to return as Tory MP relied on keeping utterly silent about his record and his distasteful business activities while hiding behind Theresa May's coattails. Faced with three excellent young women running for the Lib Dems, the Greens and Labour, he avoided almost all public appearances, and turned a 400-vote loss in 2015 into a 2000-vote one in 2017. Next time he might think twice about campaigning by covering a £70,000 SUV with his posters and driving through one of the country's most deprived areas. He was venal, dishonest and self-interested. Let's hope that he will slide back into the obscurity he so richly deserves.

I'm also hugely impressed by my students. After indulging in the usual academic's lament ('you're so apathetic, you've got no politics or beliefs', as my UG tutor constantly told us) for years, I've been hearing my students plan and discuss and read political material and register to vote. I think most of them voted Labour, but it's more important that having been on the receiving end for so long, they're riled up. It's a shame they won't get the immediate reward of a decent minimum wage and the abolition of tuition fees, but as long as they stay enthused, we can help mitigate the damage of Brexit and the decades of neglect to which they've been subjected.

I also had two friends standing for Parliament, neither of whom won: Julia Buckley for Labour in Ludlow, who didn't win but did achieve the best placing for Labour in nearly 50 years, and Daniel Williams for Plaid in Neath. Labour won by a massive amount and the Tories nearly doubled their vote to 20%, squeezing Daniel out, which I'm very sad about.

Nationally I'm confused. It was glorious to see places like Canterbury turn Labour, and Labour's result is far better than expected, but other aspects confuse and sadden me. I still find it almost impossible to comprehend why Welsh and Scottish people would vote for the Conservative Party, and I don't really understand how Scots could move their votes from the separatist SNP to the Unionist Tories so decisively in several constituencies. The ideological gulf just seems so wide. I was also hugely disappointed that Amber Rudd just about survived, alongside various other excrescences. But most shocking – though not surprising – is May's decision to form a government with the DUP. A party which took less than 1% of the UK vote is now dictating British political policy. Despite May's howling about Corbyn's links to Irish Republicanism, she's in bed with a party that has consorted with and encouraged sectarian terrorism since its foundation. Its leader held a meeting with the Ulster Defence Association's commander only last week.



They oppose women's reproductive rights, firmly believe that homosexuality is a sin and should be illegal, and believe that the earth is six thousand years old. They also designed a renewable energy incentive that was so badly (or carefully) written that £500m was paid out to their friends. They refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Irish language, they accepted a secret donation of nearly £500,000 to spend on Brexit adverts…in London, and they believe that the Pope is the Anti-Christ.

Live footage of Offoster negotiating legislative priorities with the DUP
You're all going to need a DUP name now. I've bagged Ofpaisley.

The DUP's idea of Utopia is that depicted in the current adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale: unremittingly brutal, hostile to joy, self-expression, women, ethnic and sexual minorities, imperialist and sectarian. Theresa May will shortly find that she has a new name: Offoster.

So I'm torn: pleased that a radical agenda can attract votes, saddened that it hasn't attracted enough to take power. I wish Plaid, the Greens and the SNP had done better, and I wish that this country would grow up and adopt a proportional electoral system that reflects the obvious complexity of voters' beliefs: there should be more Greens, nationalists and – sadly – UKIP MPs. Instead, we have Conservative and Labour MPs elected with literally a couple or tens of votes more than all the other parties in their constituencies combined. Nowhere is this more outrageous than Northern Ireland, where parties shamelessly collude to make sure that 'protestant areas' get a protestant MP and 'Catholic' ones get a Catholic representative regardless of political beliefs. Look at Jim Wells:
Many complaints about Sinn Fein canvassing in Rathfriland yesterday. They are not welcome in this unionist town- particularly on a Sunday.
So much for the idea that individuals have a right to hear a variety of views then make their own political decisions (and Rathfriland is 40% Catholic). One of my friends campaigned for the Workers' Party in Belfast in the 70s, shortly after it spun off from the Official IRA and ran on a socialist, cross-community ticket. He tramped 'Protestant' Streets in the company of 'Machine-Gun Tommy' for protection, and was surprised to get a warm welcome from people sick of being taken for granted because of where they lived or which chapel they attended.

For now, I'm going to enjoy the crestfallen misery of the Conservatives, and worry about the new regime next week.

Yesterday wasn't all politics. In 2008, I went to see Sigur Ros the night Obama was elected, and ended up partying with some Dutch students as we watched history unfold. I now associate ethereal music with political success. So last night a few of us went to the Arena Theatre for Powerplant, a percussion-electronica-visuals musical performance. I knew that some Steve Reich pieces were on the programme, but nothing prepared me for one of the best and most mind-bending performances I've ever seen. Joby Burgess mixes various percussion instruments with live-looping and samples to produce immersive, hypnotic performances. The first piece was a drums-only version of weird visionary Conlon Nancarrow's Piece for Tape: Nancarrow's music is so fiendishly complicated and fast that he ended up writing for mechanical player-piano, because humans couldn't manage it: the invention of tape loops and sampling brought it into the realms of the possible.

Here's a few seconds of Burgess's version, plus another bit of classic Nancarrow.




Here's Burgess's percussion plus taped piano performance of de Wardener's 'Im Dorfe', essentially sampled and warped from a Schubert phrase used in The Piano Teacher:



Burgess also played this astonishing piece by Gabriel Prokofiev, written for 3 Nigerian Fanta bottles and sampler: apparently Nigerian bottles have striations, and the musician consumes some of the Fanta to change the pitch during the performance.



Burgess also 'played' Steve Reich's 'My Name Is', which I hadn't heard of. He recorded several audience members including a distinguished member of my party saying 'My Name Is (their name)' and looped it in phases, moving in and out of comprehensibility. Having to extract meaning from a babble of my managers' voices was eerily reminiscent of being at meetings. It was amazing though, and wonderful to think that those sampled people made a piece of amazing art that can never be reproduced. It's gone for ever.



There was also a piece called 'Temazcal' by Javier Alvarez, a sampled piece about music censorship by Nicole Lizée called 'The Filthy Fifteen', then two classics given amazing twists. He performed Arvo Pärt's 'Fratres' (usually drums and choir) using drums and a Canna Sonora, or Aluminium Harp, a weird friction-operated metal contraption. Sadly there's no recording but the effect was astonishing, moving and ethereal. Here's a different bit of music played on this odd instrument.



Burgess finished by playing Reich's 'Electric Counterpoint' on the xylosynth - amazing performance, but I admit to hating the sound of that instrument. Try the marimba/vibraphone and (original) electric guitar versions instead. If you liked The Orb's classic 'Little Fluffy Clouds' you'll recognise this piece.



So, mind blown, I went home for a night of anxious election coverage. I was not disappointed.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Incidental music

No insights into my working life or current affairs coverage this week, Vole fans! All I've done is mark essays and clean my house. Guess which one is most fun… Still, I'm down to my last 54 2500-word portfolios. Argh.

So as a placeholder: some music I've come across recently or returned to.

Phil Niblock's Works for Hurdy-Gurdy. I think I heard an extract on Radio 3 a few weeks ago and was hooked. Half-way between classical drone and kosmische, played on medieval instruments. If it wasn't such an effort I'd source some quality mushrooms for the full effect. This is one I can't play in the office while people are around – I think it might fray some nerves.



I've also got out my old Chumbawamba albums. Years before the awful hit they had, they played my SU as part of their pretty much permanent tour of anarchist squats and grubby student dives. Musically they're no great shakes and they're even more didactic than one of my more boring lectures, but I like their anarcho-syndicalist politics and they have a way with a tune. I also liked their adoption of postmodern remix and appropriation tactics: I bought their Jesus H. Christ album under the counter: made entirely of unapproved samples, it would have tied them up in court cases for decades. You can download it from various places or buy the 'official' (but still legally-problematic) version, Shhh





Which as I'm now in a crusty-rap-rock frame of mind leads me straight to Blaggers ITA, which might be the very first thing I ever bought on CD.



Which leads naturally to Tystion:



Back in the present, I've fallen for the new Thomas Adès album, particularly Polaris, and Charlotte Bray's At The Speed of Stillness. 





See you next week.


Friday, 26 May 2017

Collaborations Don't Work

It's Friday afternoon and I'm in the office, marking dissertations (some good, some bad and some ugly). On my colleague's desk is a review copy of the Cambridge History of British Working Class Fiction, which includes a chapter co-written by me and a distinguished academic from Cardiff Uni. Slightly annoying that his copy has appeared and mine hasn't, but never mind.



People in the humanities are a bit wary of jointly-written articles, because unlike science it's not traditional and therefore the REF Gods might look down on it. The thing is though, I really enjoy working with other people. They're usually clever than me and it takes much more determination to delay or disappoint somebody else. I'm so lazy that I'd rather do the work on time and up to scratch than deal with the guilt that I habitually let wash over me when my solo work is late or rubbish.

As well as the chapter on Welsh working-class fiction, I've written some other things with other people in the past couple of years:

1. Journal article on Doctor Who, Star Trek and Foucauldian technologies of the self (forthcoming in the Journal of Popular Television) with a colleague.
2. A chapter on jazz in contemporary fiction in this book with a different colleague.
3. A journal article on media representations of the Co-op Bank crash with a critical management scholar from another university (under review).
4. A journal article on neoliberalism and pornographic fan fiction with one of my PhD students (under review for a Journal of Popular Culture special issue).

Two of these were my idea, and I've also been asked to help with another colleague's work on new religious movements' use of social media, plus my ongoing politicians' novels project has room for collaboration. If we hadn't worked together, none of these pieces would exist, or at least not in the present form. I've learned from my colleagues and hopefully they've learned something from me – proper punctuation placement, if nothing else. Between us we've probably done a better job than we would have individually, and my intellectual scope has been widened (an alternative reading is that there's no solid core to my research, but that's an argument for another day).

All together now: 'collaborations don't work'…

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

All of a muddle.

It feels like a long time since I put fingers to keyboard for blogging purpose – it's certainly been an aeon since I managed 4 posts a day. Which is probably a good thing for all concerned. Recently the slowdown has been down to sheer pressure of work. I've fallen into marking like a drunk in quicksand. The more I flounder, the more it sucks me down. Iv'e done my online forums, and now I'm marking dissertations. After that it's the second-year Shakespeare/Renaissance essays, and after that it's the motherlode: 108,000 words of first-year drama essays. Great students, but marking really is a chore however good the work is.

There have been brighter spots. I went to two conferences the other week; one on Dissent Studies at Keele University and the other my annual Welsh Writing in English one, always held at the beautiful Neuadd Gregynog in Powys. The Keele gig was fun because it was multidisciplinary: I co-presented a paper on media coverage of the Co-operative Bank's travails, while others spoke about Jonathan Lethem's novels, legal matters, politics and a host of other perspectives. The keynote speaker was meant to be 60s agitator Tariq Ali, but he was too ill to attend. Instead we got a superb talk by cultural studies powerhouse Jeremy Gilbert.

AWWE a couple of days later was one of the best I've been at. We had to have three parallel sessions rather than two for some of the event, there were launches of good books such as Bethan Jenkins's Between England and Wales: Anglophone Welsh Writing of the 18th Century, and the wine flowed. M Wynn Thomas's keynote was a passionate account of the field's genesis and his disappointment that WWiE hasn't been afforded the intellectual respect other subject areas have garnered. None of his books get reviewed in the London literary press, for instance, reflecting a metropolitan uninterest in things Welsh. For the record, my review of his last-but-one book The Nations of Wales should appear in the open-access International Journal of Welsh Writing in English fairly soon. I don't want to give away too many spoilers but basically: it's a genuinely brilliant book. Wynn expanded on his topic with a fire that this generally gentle man rarely unleashes: he excoriated British historians and literary scholars capable only of reading English-language work, and identified a whole load of unexplored research areas for future scholars.



Other highlights included having a few beers with Jamie, whose PhD I examined a couple of weeks ago - all friends now! There were too many appealing sessions to justify sneaking off for a wander in the countryside, and I had to skip friends' talks to attend equally attractive ones. I tried to go to as many postgrad papers as possible – partly to be encouraging and partly to feed off their healthy fresh young blood. I was particularly pleased to hear people talking about the subjects of my PhD (Lewis Jones, Richard Llewellyn and Gwyn Thomas) in ways I hadn't thought about. We also had a compelling  – and visceral – keynote by Jasmine Donahaye about the existence (or not) of creative non-fiction, starting with her account of running over a cat and soon reaching her abbatoir views. Psephologist Roger Scully gave a fascinating account of changing Welsh political landscapes, though he wouldn't be drawn on whether our distinguished colleague Daniel Williams would win Neath for Plaid Cymru. The final keynote was Jon Anderson, the human geographer at the heart of the Literary Atlas Wales project, which is soon to launch. It provided some of the weekend's controversies, particularly the decision to choose only English-language texts. The other spat was Andy Webb's account of Owen Sheers' Pink Mist, which he saw as signalling its Welshness covertly and marginally: he saw the stage play as even more universalist, stripping any Welsh and anti-war material away to make it a Support Our Boys drama. Mr Sheers was following all this on Twitter and was, it's fair to say, less than impressed.



Since that weekend I've also been part of the hiring process for our very first Chair in English (white smoke has yet to emerge) which was interesting but probably not suitable material for a public forum, and done lots of the things that appear in clumps at this time of year: PhD progress reviews, external examiner work and so on. But above it all is the marking.


Wynn says farewell to Alyce von Rothkirch, who is returning to Germany and will be missed

Still, it keeps my mind off the outside world: mass murders at pop concerts and the most breathtakingly sinister and cynical election campaign I've experienced. The Tories in particular seem to be running on a Norsefire agenda of cracking down on democracy per se. Watch this space though: I'm actually running to ground secretive local Tory candidate Paul Uppal tomorrow at a very rare hustings. Your suggestions for questions are very welcome.








Monday, 15 May 2017

I beg the honour, sir…



Titles are weird. Some tell you that your interlocutor's ancestors were the most determined terrorists and plunderers of the day (Queen, King, Duke etc.). Others represent the judicious investment of large amounts of cash in political party coffers (Baron, Sir, Lady), or the neediness of a ruling class that just wants to hang out with the cool kids (thanks, Harold Wilson, for those MBEs given to the Beatles). President, I should say, is now a floating signifier. It once denoted gravitas and authority whatever you thought of the holder's policies: now it represents a nation's collective boredom and the lengths it will go to have a giggle.

Others are earned – despite the neoliberal attack on the professions embodied by Mr Gove's hostility to experts, I like being introduced to Dr. X at the hospital. It doesn't tell me whether she got 100% in her medical exams or a bare pass, but it does tell me that she worked very hard for many years and was considered competent in one of the most rigorous qualification process on the planet.

Yet more titles are unearned and unwanted: ask a female academic what title is bestowed on them by students (and shockingly, online forms) and the answer is frequently Miss or Mrs, despite the answer being 'Dr.'. (Google 'Professor' and click Images, and prepare to be depressed) Men get Mistered too (especially non-Caucasian ones), but not nearly so much – it's as though you can be a woman or a fully-qualified academic, but not both. Dr in this context is a formal recognition on the part of the student and others that the person guiding them is a bona fide expert.

I say this because I just read this very interesting piece in the New York Times about the way students can, do and should address academics, and it made me think about the complex cultures around such things.

Over the past decade or two, college students have become far more casual in their interactions with faculty members. My colleagues around the country grumble about students’ sloppy emails and blithe informality.
Mark Tomforde, a math professor at the University of Houston who has been teaching for almost two decades, added etiquette guidelines to his website. “When students started calling me by my first name, I felt that was too far, and I’ve got to say something,” he told me. “There were also the emails written like text messages. Worse than the text abbreviations was the level of informality, with no address or signoff.”

I deploy my title - and those of others – sparingly. The 'Professors' who were given the title without ever having published anything or taught a class never hear the word from my lips, because I still believe that the term should denote intellectual and pedagogical distinction, nor do I use feudal titles on the rare occasions that I bump into Lords and Dames in the chipper. I have friends who either never wanted careers in HE or for one reason or another couldn't achieve one whom I do address as Dr sometimes, because I think someone should publicly recognise their hard work and contribution to knowledge sometimes. For the same reason, I like to use the title when talking to newly-minted PhDs: it's all very well to be casual about it if you found the process a doddle, or it was decades ago, but being a PhD is special. The title change moves the individual's social position away from sexual and marital identity to the intellectual plane: it represents something valuable you did, rather than your accident of birth or social status. Not many people get that kind of freedom, and they deserve to be recognised for it. (None of this applies to me though: in a flash of pure ego I changed my debit card to read Dr, and have always regretted that moment of pomposity. Though it might help my credit rating, as there are two world-class academics with the exact same forenames and surnames, which has led to a couple of very interesting conference invitations).

So I can understand the need to apply the title for feminist purposes, and I agree that a title which recognises a contribution to knowledge should be celebrated, but I do think there are contexts in which the deployment of titles in general are barriers to inclusion. The author of the NYT piece sees it as part of a culture of informality which is to be abhorred: first names lead to text-message style communications, lead to bombing the campus chapel (seriously, read the piece). I recognise this: a lot of emails don't have any salutation or sign-off, and some are unexpected or indicative of cultural origins: I was both amused and rather gratified to read 'Yo blud'; 'bruv' is not unknown, and one module evaluation simply read 'nice arse', which was both inappropriate and inaccurate. Most emails start with 'hi Firstname', which is fine with me, and in person most students use my first name. There's a cultural aspect to this: often more middle-class students use an honorific, even if it's not the right one, and 'sir/miss' is common amongst those coming straight from school, but on the whole our working-class and mature students often address us in ways which imply social equality, and I like that. I particularly hate the sir/miss thing and work hard to eradicate it because to me it represents an authoritarian structure of pedagogy that has no place in a university. It's true, too, that Americans are generally more formal inside and outside the classroom - you'll hear 'sir' or 'ma'am' everywhere you go, and former titles are widely used - you're a President or a General for life. As an aside: I hate the compulsory obsequiousness of retail staff. They're paid the least their employers can get away with, and it's certainly not enough to justify forcing them to pretend they're our butlers or, even worse, our friends. I admire the honesty of the surly, disengaged till operator who refuses to disguise the exploitative nature of the exchange with emotional labour.

Class is one of the primary factors for me. My institution's undergraduates are 98% working-class; its academic staff are, shall we say, not 98% working class. Nor, racially, do we resemble our intake. We neither look nor sound like them. I therefore think there's a careful line to tread when it comes to formal modes of address in such a context. I want the potential academics amongst them to see a doctorate as something they can achieve; I want all the students to respect the acquisition of knowledge as valuable, but I also feel that the use of titles in an institution like ours raises barriers, and would also remind people that I have colleagues who are better academics than me without having PhDs, and bad teachers and researchers who do hold doctorates). My students aren't my friends: I don't have them round to my house or weep on their shoulders when I'm miserable, but I do generally like them, and want to communicate a sense that they're intellectual colleagues, that I've a head start on them in terms of time and experience, but that we're engaged in a common project of intellectual inquiry in which I can learn from them. Titles can sometimes be a bit like the locked doors that pervade some universities.

I'm not sure there's an answer to the questions raised by this NYT piece. I do think intellectual achievement should be recognised, and there are gender, power, racial and class issues to be addressed, but in general I'm happy to be spoken to informally because I try to be a democrat in all areas of my life. That said, I do draw a line sometimes. A casual email that treats me as a customer service operator will often result in stiff response, and I do remind students that the outside world has different expectations: I once counselled a student that her job application results were probably not aided by an email address containing the words 'sexy bitch', even though my own inclinations are to smash corporate hierarchies and value judgements rather than prepare students to bow before them.

Molly Worthen's view is that despite the problematic racial, class and sexual histories of titular deployment, the careful use of titles is part of a valuable social structure of respect for genuine achievement, though I notice that the NYT house style has stripped both her and her interviewees of their academic titles as a matter of course.
Angela Jackson-Brown, a professor of English at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., told me that “most of my students will acknowledge that I’m the first and only black teacher they’ve ever had.” Insisting on her formal title is important, she said: “I feel the extra burden of having to go in from Day 1 and establish that I belong here.”

When Professor Jackson-Brown began teaching in the 1990s, most students respected her authority. But in recent years, that deference has waned (she blames the informality of social media). “I go out of my way now to not give them access to my first name,” she said. “On every syllabus, it states clearly: ‘Please address me as Professor Jackson-Brown.’ ”
I get that, and I understand that it's culturally contingent: my French and German friends have the option (and social minefield) of tu/vous or du/sie, and the progressive moments of the 60s and 70s saw a re-evaluation of their uses. There's a slippage I detect in this article: whenever I hear the words 'respect my authority' I think of Cartman from South Park and worry that it's not intellectual achievement underlying the respect being requested.



I wonder if we should consider how academics address students. If you watch old films (not necessarily historically accurate of course), students are addressed as Mr. or Miss: the formality might be interpreted as either the respect due to adults, or as a signifier of a necessary social distance. I use my students' first names, but I don't think I've ever asked permission to be so familiar: is it an unconsciously oppressive act, or would Mr/Ms sound so weirdly out of time that it would be automatically read as sarcasm or disapprobation? (Nor do I explicitly indicate that I'd prefer them to use my forename - I'd rather go with what people feel comfortable with unless it's the loaded Sir/Miss thing. Few things are more embarrassing than this:



I guess that for me, in the unlikely event of all things being equal, respect is gradually earned rather than enforced through honorifics, but I'm speaking from a position of gender, class and racial privilege. I can wear my PhD lightly (even though I only just scraped through) because I look more like the imaginary Prof than lots of other people (I combat this by being glimpsed in my cycling gear now and then: once the dry heaving stops the comedic value makes it hard to kow-tow again). At the same time, I don't think that students who speak to me casually are communicating a lack of academic respect or a suspicion of experts (the dreaded 'credentialism'): I think it often denotes trust, and that's a valuable thing.
The real point is to stand up for the values that have made our universities the guardians of civilization.
In the end, I don't think that a friendly deployment of my forename, or an overly familiar email, erodes the pillars of civilisation. It might make us bristle, or consider the underlying social and cultural paradigm, but there are rather more pressing threats to civilisation and civility to deal with, such as the global dominance of a man who thinks it's fun to 'grab' women 'by the pussy'.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Look into my eyes: HE, 'woo' and managing change

Hi everybody. 
It's been an action-packed few days here at Vole Towers. Since my last post I've been the external examiner for a PhD at Aberystwyth (on Jan Morris, Iain Sinclair and post-devolution Welsh literature), done some serious miles on the bike, seen The Play That Went Wrong – highly recommended – co-presented a paper at the Dissent Studies conference at Keele University and talked to lots and lots of students about their work. I've been appraised, planned next year's modules (ish) and done as much union work as I can. Tomorrow we're interviewing for a Chair of English, and then I'm off to AWWE17, my beloved annual Welsh literature conference. I'm not presenting this time, just doing Secretary-of-the-Association duties, so I'm paying for it myself. Oh yes, and there's apparently a general election on. 

So I could bore you with all sorts of things, but I won't. Instead, I want to draw your attention to an innocuous-looking invitation that dropped into my email the other day. 

Module 1 - NLP techniques for Leading Change (for line managers only)
Enables Managers / Leaders to guide their team through some of the challenges associated with change.  The focus here is ‘Leading People and Self through Periods of Change’.  
I'm not a line manager, so I'm not invited. But NLP rang a worrying little bell. I discounted the possibility that it stood for Natural Language Processing because some of my friends work on that and it doesn't help Lead Change (though teaching computers to understand corporate management discourse is probably easier than teaching managers not to use it).  So if not that, then what. All I remembered was that it was something slightly sinister. 

Got it: Neuro-Linguistic Programming. 

I'm used – though not resigned – to being described in university systems as a Resource, but I'm not sure an organisation literally founded to foster a culture of rational inquiry and debate should be talking about 'programming' human beings. 

But this is surely Vole being his usual resistant, paranoid self, isn't it? Let's have a look at NLP. Where does it come from? What's it been used for? Does it actually work? Would it pass an ethics panel if I proposed using it on students?

NLP is a psychological model and set of techniques widely used by life coaches, corporate counsellors and similar types as a means of self-help. Here's one such company's explanation:
Have you ever tried to communicate with someone who didn’t speak your language, and they couldn’t understand you? The classic example of this is when someone goes out to a restaurant in a Foreign country and they think they ordered steak, but when the food shows up, it turns out they actually asked for liver stew.
This is the kind of relationship that most of us have with our own unconscious mind. We might think we are “ordering up” more money, a happy, healthy relationship, peace with our family members, and being able to stick to a healthy diet…but unless that’s what showing up, then something is probably getting lost in translation.
In NLP, we have a saying: the conscious mind is the goal setter, and the unconscious mind is the goal getter. Your unconscious mind is not out to get you–rather, it’s out TO GET FOR YOU whatever you want in life. However, if you don’t know how to communicate what you want properly, it will keep bringing steaming bowls of liver stew out of the kitchen.
To me, this is unadulterated woo with no scientific or philosophical basis other than a very, very distant descent from Freudian models. But it's simply yet another quick-fix for the suckers who obligingly keep getting born every minute. No real harm done in applying it to yourself (other than the cultural damage inflicted by the acquisitive, individualist assumptions underlying guff like the above. 

Where it gets properly sinister is when NLP is applied by one person to another to manufacture consent. NLP is the motor of those vile sex/dating systems promoted by 'pick-up artists'. Here's disgusting author of The Game, Neil Strauss:
How To Use NLP For Seduction
NLP’s greatest asset to a pickup artist is its comfort-building technology. Building comfort is a lot like being a therapist, in that you’re trying to create an atmosphere where she feels safe enough to share personal stories with you. However, unlike a therapist, you will be sharing your stories with her in an effort to build a strong emotional connection. 
The key is to listen to the words she uses when telling a story and decide whether they are based on sight, sound, or emotion. Once you decide which representational system they use most, respond in the same modality. With practice, the seducer should notice that the TARGET is much more responsive to everything being said. 
The use of the word 'target' is instructive: the person on the receiving end of NLP techniques is not an equal partner. She is being manipulated through linguistic devices to respond in pre-ordained ways to particular stimuli (if you explore The Game and its eco-system you'll find nasty concepts such as negging, the practice of undermining a woman's self-esteem until she's sufficiently depressed to accept anyone so amoral as a pick-up artist). 

So NLP is first and foremost an exercise of unequal power in which the user overcomes the victim's worldview and emotional/intellectual autonomy. It is emphatically not the use of rhetoric for persuasion on a level ground. It is a specific technique for evading analysis of the communication's content, by appearing to operate on the subconscious level. It is, and I don't think this is hyperbolic, a subtle form of rape, because it aims to achieve unconscious consent. 

In a sense, 'does it work?' is a secondary question, like 'does torture work?': it's clear to me that there's no ethical justification for employing NLP techniques on another human being. However, if you really want to know: very little serious research has been done on NLP, and the well-designed papers that tackle it are clear that no, it doesn't work and claims made for it are scientifically unverifiable (e.g. Sharpley 1987, Sturt et al. 2012). 

NLP is being used at my university to get us all to agree to 'change'. Any change. It is clearly being used to avoid the examination of proposed change on rational grounds. The purpose is to manipulate colleagues covertly rather than to engage them in a process of debate. 

If I proposed to use NLP techniques on my students it would not pass an ethics panel. There is no way that NLP constitutes informed consent to anything. Furthermore, it is entirely at odds with the ethos of education in general, and of this institution in particular. Here's are the first two points of our 'mission statement':
The University of [Cthulu] is a learning community promoting excellence, innovation and creativity. We are committed to being:
An agent for social inclusion and social change
An arena for the development of ideas and critical thinking
I cannot see how the use of covert and discredited techniques of psychological manipulation conform to ideals of inclusion or critical thinking - it is antithetical to both these concepts. Whether the proposed change is a different coffee blend or the abolition of lectures, colleagues in collective endeavour of education should expect to be treated as equals and to be respected. The use of NLP reveals both the paucity of management thinking (because they've fallen for a load of mumbo-jumbo despite being able to call on the skills of a whole department of qualified psychologists) and its moral bankruptcy. A course on applying NLP does not magically appear. This is a bureaucratic system (not necessarily a bad thing: bureaucracies can often guarantee fairness) which requires multiple levels of decision-making. Essentially, lots of people have calmly considered the use of an immoral technique of psychological manipulation and decided that yes, on balance, it would make their lives easier. While this might be what you'd expect of the more slippery corporate organisations out there, universities have legal, social, cultural and moral histories and public positions which supposedly protect their staffs, students and publics from this kind of thing. 

Not any more. The existence of this single little course is enough to tell you at here, at least, the humanist values of higher education have been replaced by a pragmatic, goal-oriented and morality-free system pursuit of other priorities - namely, I think, the frictionless exercise of power. 

I intend to pursue this internally. If this is happening elsewhere, please let me know.  

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Guess who's back!

Like the undead, failed, mediocre Conservative candidates walk amongst us. In my case, it's Paul Uppal, the self-satirising Tory. For my newer readers, I have a little history with Poor Paul. It's fair to say that I disliked him from the start: a millionaire property speculator with no history of public service, he started his parliamentary career by telling lies about electoral fraud. This led to an amusing exchange of letters between me and the Electoral Commission and the police, and between the EC and Mr Uppal. 
The Commission is not investigating any allegation of fraud in Wolverhampton South West. We made initial enquiries about an error in the count at the 2010 general election. However the matter was closed with no further action as a result of all parties accepting the result of the count.
In a subsequent letter, the EC informed me that:
We are aware of Mr. Uppal's MP statement and we will be contacting him to clarify the matter with him.
At least two Labour MPs called him out for his attack on democracy:
Frank Dobson: Does my hon. Friend agree that what really undermines confidence is when people make smeary remarks and no prosecutions follow because the remarks turn out to have no facts behind them? 
Wayne David (Caerphilly, Labour) Indeed, and that is one of the things to which I alluded earlier, as have ACPO and the Electoral Commission. Many people make complaints, be it in the heat of the moment or otherwise, but are then unable to substantiate their allegations, which often fall by the wayside, completely unproven. 
He also has a nasty habit of assuming that all Sikh people will vote for him because he's a Sikh, despite beginning his political career with a swipe against the 'race relations circus'
The Race Relations Circus 
…the McCarthyistic mouth foaming utterances of the race relations industry, which through accusation alone can slay political careers and stifle well intentioned and principled debate. I say this because I have seen with my very own eyes the modus operandi of this circus, employing individuals to perpetuate this climate of political correctness. In reality this industry/business does dreadful damage to Britain’s race relations. It seems more concerned with securing it’s own funding streams and non jobs for it’s membership of zealots. The cost of this is all is so much more than financial, as we lose decent people and gag those who point to the emperor’s new clothes. 
Mind you, his views on immigration and the state display a certain malleability:
"Some years ago, a prominent immigration lawyer told me that the two main drivers of immigration are, first, the perception—right or wrong—that we have an overtly generous welfare system in the UK; and secondly, lax human rights legislation."
http://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=2012-06-11b.48.0#g56.1 
Paul Uppal MP, 18th June 2012:
"I have found from my experience as a constituency MP that many black and minority ethnic communities, particularly migrant communities, came to this country because they wanted to live in an environment in which there was a belief in a robust democracy."
http://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=2012-06-18a.654.1&s=speaker%3A24886#g657.2 
And in a sadly-deleted Channel Four News interview, he managed to claim that Enoch Powell (oh yes) would actually be pleased that his constituency was represented by an Asian person. Of course he would!

He didn't like meeting the public or having his photograph taken, or doing any work, and he was so intent on enriching himself and his speculator mates that the property industry described him as their man in Parliament – I was under the naive impression that MPs were the citizens' representatives. Certainly his parliamentary questions were largely related to lobbying for tax relief on his own property investments. Five years of Uppal certainly cured me of that error: he sponsored no laws, rarely spoke, joined no select committees and generally just warmed a green bench. He managed to make precisely TWO speeches in his first three months, which worked out at £8500 each. Cheap compared with, say, George Osborne, but not exactly Stakhanovite. These speeches were, of course, about himself. How did he spend his time? Taking jollies to Saudi Arabia in return for slavishly defending that appalling regime, and visiting occupied Syria as a guest of the Israel Defence Forces. Still, at least he voted to privatise forests and displayed great political courage by abstaining on equal marriage because the tension between party loyalty and his own opposition to fairness and justice for all proved too much for him. He also voted to slash benefits for disabled children while continually calling for tax cuts for property speculators, a habit which annoyed even fellow Tories!


My second suggestion will probably make me extremely unpopular, in particular with my hon. Friend Paul Uppal. Although the Government cannot do much about the role of small commercial landlords, those landlords are absolutely deluded about their ability to get the rents they ask. Their mentality is to ask for yesterday’s rent; because a shop was rented out 10 years ago at £40,000, they will keep it empty for three, four or five years under the delusion that they will get the same rent, and notwithstanding the fact that they are paying empty property rates, which I point out to the Minister it is right for them to be doing.
If you're wondering, yes, all his political donors are on the shady side. 
In other consistency news, he hosted a MacMillan Coffee Morning to combat cancer, while opposing plain cigarette packaging.

Note to students: Mr Uppal enthusiastically voted to increase student tuition fees to £9000. 

On a light-hearted note I enjoyed watching him recycle Tory PR lines as though they were his (also here and here), and noting the times when 'a constituent' would conveniently express Uppal's own views in precise parliamentary language, which everybody on the street speaks fluently. 
A constituent spoke to me who comes from one of the handful of families on her road who actually work. The rest of the families on her street have made a conscious life choice to live off benefits. [ Interruption. ] Ms Buck may nod, sigh and take a deep breath, but I am faced in my weekly surgeries by people who live in the real world—people who have to deal with the hard reality of life. My constituent had to face ridicule for going to work. That is the situation that we have.
I have seen that so often when I meet young people. They have a choice between work and a life on benefits. They have looked me in the eye and said that a life on benefits is not such a bad option. 
This magic constituent pops up again:
one of my constituents recently approached me. She is one of two families in her road who work. She has not had a holiday for three years. Both parents work to support their children. Neither of their children has a mobile phone, and yet neighbours next to my constituent have children who continually tell her children that they have  mobile phones. 
And again:
A lady on Rugby Street told me that she's ridiculed by her neighbours for going out to work.  
But this is the best one: the Voice of Youth!
I also spoke to about half a dozen young Muslim men, who said to me quite directly, “You will not stem this tide of irresponsibility unless the House speaks with one voice. It is important that the issue is not hijacked for political point-scoring.” Does my right hon. Friend concur with that view? 
These aren't the only articulate young men he spoke to either: here's another
One conversation I had on that day still sticks in my mind. It was with a young person from Wolverhampton who said, “I want to thank you, Mr Uppal, for organising this. You’ve given me hope.” 
Even his kids aren't safe:
my oldest daughter encapsulated my feelings on Sikhism quite wonderfully when she said, “Dad we have such a cool faith, why don’t we talk about it much more?” I hope that in some small way, by making this speech this morning, I have helped that process.
To which all I can say is:



Oh, and it's seven years since I asked him what class degree he got (Politics, Warwick). He won't tell me, which makes me assume it's a Third or an Ordinary. Which is ironic, because he's a big fan of selective schools, and an enemy of parental scrutiny of academy schools. He was elected with 40.7% of the a 67.9% turnout, vote but called for a 50% minimum vote for strikes (policy since enacted, sadly). If you can judge a man by the company he keeps, he fares badly too: see this and this delightful bit of Liam Fox business. He is a bit paranoid too: he was a regular visitor to my blog. That's in-between carrying on a war on street preachers and charity fundraisers. He thinks they are the main reason people don't go to city centres, and his plan is to privatise our streets.

Still, he'll be a good steward of the economy, won't he? Um…not if his own finances are anything to go by: I enjoyed his campaign failing to pay its website bills during the last election campaign and therefore having no web presence at all! 

Still, he's been working hard to stay in touch with his constituents during his days in the political wilderness, hasn't he? Er…not according to his latest Twitter missives:




Well Paul, happy days are here again!

In case you're wondering, the Labour candidate is a nurse, not a millionaire.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

What a long strange trip it's been (this week)

A strange few days since I got back from the US. Jetlag of course, but it turns out that all the things I thought were hallucinations actually happened. First a general election announcement, then my youngest sister got married, and yesterday I found what at first I thought was a dead body on the pavement, during my cycle to work.

The election: the Prime Minister's language is starting to frighten me. It implies less commitment to the checks and balances of parliamentary democracy than any British politician I can think of. Certainly even Winston Churchill thought twice about indulging his dictatorial leanings during World  War Two. Mrs May is putting me strongly in mind of the Norsefire Party, the Tory successor that established a dictatorship based on faith and flag in Alan Moore's V for Vendetta. I also think that the electorate – which appears to like being on the receiving end of a punishment beating – will give her carte blanche to do what she wants. Several of my friends are standing for parliament this time but all for Plaid Cymru in Wales so I won't have the pleasure of voting for them.

Two years ago I tramped the streets leafleting and canvassing for a Labour candidate who beat the Tory incumbent. I learned a lot while doing so, and was pleased to help achieve a result against the national tide. Now he's decided not to run, pleading age and exhaustion, and frustration with being in opposition. Not a factionalism, he's also exasperated with Jeremy Corbyn's day-to-day competence as a political leader. I fear this means another seat will be won by a Tory. Rumour has it that the previous incumbent, Paul Uppal, will be that Tory. A disaster for the city but a return to the glory days of political spite for me: Uppal was stupendously rich, lazy, dishonest, secretive, inaccessible, paranoid and none too bright. A self-satirising politician in fact, though I'll do my bit (as I did back then).

What else? My sister's wedding was probably only of interest to friends and family but if you want to see pictures of other people's relatives (and of cheese), try here. There was a petting zoo for the kids which attracted the attention of 6 buzzards, though sadly they didn't launch any actual raids. She's the 5th and last of my siblings to marry. That just leaves me…and I've already got an EU passport so there's no reason for me to get hitched.

And so to yesterday's slice of life, a mix of deep tragedy and low comedy. A few years ago I walked into a group comprising a man waving a knife at two women and a little girl and felt compelled to get involved; this time I was cycling to work when I spotted what seemed to be a dead body on the pavement outside a school. I have no idea how long she'd been there, but on closer inspection she was breathing but totally unresponsive. I called an ambulance and then flagged down a passing car which turned out to be an unmarked police car containing two officers who knew the woman by name: she is a local sex worker with multiple dependencies to whom they'd given aid several times in recent days. I've had very mixed experiences with the police in the past, but these ones were very good - slightly exasperated but caring and not judgmental. It was very depressing to hear that they were surprised I'd stopped to help: they're used to people just walking past. They were also quite funny. It was so cold that eventually I sat in their car for a bit. One said 'I guess you're wondering why the car stinks of cannabis', to which I replied 'Oh, so that's what it smells like!' and we all laughed.

I stopped to help for a number of reasons really. Human dignity is the main one: nobody should be ignored in that condition, however inconvenient it is. It also, I think, comes from being a cyclist and pedestrian I suppose. Everyone has their own geography or sense of spatiality which is partly moral and partly communal. A driver is cocooned from events outside the vehicle by speed and metal; they're removed from the ordinary pace of the community, which becomes part of the blur. Moving slowly means that everywhere on my journey to work feels like part of my territory, a space of which I am a part and for which I share responsibility.

I should say that there's nothing special about someone stopping to help, and that my patch of the city may be poor and a little bit scruffy, but it's a good place to live. Or would be, if it weren't for my noisy neighbour. I'd think twice about checking whether he's still breathing.

What else has been going on? I've done the first read-through of a very interesting and thought-provoking PhD I'm examining shortly. I actually had to buy more post-it notes, and now there are more comments than pages. I've read excellent undergraduate dissertation drafts, and we had presentations for my first-year drama module. I was stunned by the ambition and sophistication I saw. Multiple groups performed long, difficult scenes (beyond what the assignment asked the for) and I don't mind admitting that they packed an emotional punch that left me and the rest of the audience gasping.

I also went to a hustings for the regional mayoral elections that didn't leave anyone gasping. All very sensible and good-humoured but distinctly underwhelming. When a candidate's pitch includes a call for a 'task and finish group' and you can't tell UKIP, the Lib Dems, Labour, a Tory and a Green apart without a microphone you get a good idea of why turnouts are so low. I've also attended a meeting with management in support of a colleague in my union rep role and had the rare opportunity to witness a happy ending: everyone round the table was sensible, constructive and thoughtful rather than defensive or confrontational. This is not a common occurrence, and there's an enormous storm coming on other matters. But for now, I'm going to enjoy the moment.

The other highlight of the week was seeing bleak contemporary folksters The Unthanks singing the songs of Molly Drake, mother of the wonderful Nick Drake. I already love The Unthanks' work, and was intrigued to hear this music, recorded at home for enjoyment rather than for the public and discovered only a few years ago. I liked them: folkish, jazz-inflected songs with a Betjemanesque, 1930s tea-party air – musically exactly what you might expect of someone growing up in the interwar/wartime upper-middle classes yet with a dash of contemplative introspection as she processed personal experiences through song. The friend I took with me misheard the invitation and thought we were getting Nick Cave's mother's music. Now that I'd pay to hear.







There's so much else going on but I fear I've delighted you long enough. TTFN.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

The Austin Rover

So I went to Austin, Texas for a few days, to attend the Britain in the World conference. Yes, I did travel United (and Flybe) and yes, it was pretty terrible. But no, I wasn't assaulted in any way by the cabin crew or security. The first flight I was booked for didn't actually exist, the transatlantic flight was delayed by an hour because the first officer's microphone was stuck, US immigration was distinctly lacking in bonhomie, and on the way back I had a seven hour wait at Houston (boy the charms of that place wear off after about twenty minutes) and the final Flybe flight had to return to the gate because…they'd forgotten to load the luggage. They forgot to unload it at our destination too. That last flight had all the charm of Huis Clos performed by the dishevelled and aggressive survivors of a particularly low-rent stag weekend too. Not that I'm a misanthropist at all…

Plus I hate flying for cowardly and environmental reasons. I have – for what it's worth – shovelled some offsetting money in the direction of ClimateCare. I comfort myself with the knowledge that I don't (can't) drive, cycle or get the train pretty much everywhere and don't have children. 

Anyway, Austin and the conference. It was interesting being a literary scholar amongst almost exclusively historians. They do things very differently - there wasn't much concern for theoretical approaches, and the papers were much more tightly focussed and descriptive than the kind of thing I do. Being a full-scale British Studies event though, the panels ranged around the world and back to the fifteenth-century. The joy of being an academic tourist meant that I could sit back and enjoy them without having to record every detail. I did like the panels on colonialism, emotions and culture - in particular there was one on flag-draped superheroes by Lawrence Abrams which was witty and very insightful, and gave me a couple of ideas for future work. Jennifer Warburton of Kansas U did one that juxtaposed official British doctrine on Protestantism with the pragmatic approach eventually taken when the Empire captured hordes of Catholics, and there was a wonderful session on popular culture: the London musical of Gone With The Wind (a flop involving a live horse), Martin Farr of Newcastle on Oh! What a Lovely War and Kevin Flanagan from Pittsburgh (his office is in the mind-boggling Cathedral of Learning!) doing a stunning presentation on Goodtimes Entertainments series of world war 2 'documentaries', which mostly seemed to involve setting newsreel footage to covers of Beatles tracks - such as Hitler at Berchtesgarten set to 'Fool on the Hill'.  


Amongst their other work is this, by Ken Russell - Ringo Starr was also involved. 



Two of the best things at the whole conference were the round table discussions. One was on the fraught subject of Brexit: some of the pro-Trump academics (yes, you read that correctly) saw Brexit as a huge opportunity but most were rather shell-shocked. Some interesting views from the anglosphere were presented: if the Brits think that New Zealand is going to save them they've another think coming. It was down to me and my colleague to put the view from the Celtic nations and the left however: with some honourable exceptions, 'British Studies' appeared to mean 'English Studies'. The other great session was 'Teaching Controversial Subjects', something my colleagues and I have long experience of: I'm currently teaching Jennifer Haley's The Nether and next semester we're reading Gil Scott-Heron's The Nigger Factory. The range of material discussed and the kinds of cohorts involved was enormous. I picked up loads of new ideas about how to introduce and discuss tricky things without disengaging students or being paraded through the streets and publicly burned.

I think my panel went quite well, though the audience for Welsh matters was disappointingly small. I discussed Lewis Jones's work as both the end of the proletarian tradition and a missed opportunity for new forms of working-class writing; my colleagues talked about the 1950s Welsh Republican Movement, and this history of Welsh industrial relations in the post-war period. The discussion afterwards was lively, which was heartening. 

Other impressions of Austin: not as weird as it claims. And how could it be, with the Texas state legislature and all that comes with it, right in the middle of town? The relentless searing heat got to me, and the obscene consumption - (delicious) food and massive trucks mostly. I went to Denny's (wonderful) and various other places to try all the foods you can't get here. Grits: gritty wallpaper paste with no discernible flavour. Biscuits and gravy: neither biscuit nor gravy, but a scone with (quite tasty) white sauce. Collard greens: an absolute winner - good spiciness. The Austinites were utterly lovely. The bars are magnificent and the million-plus bats under the bridge are an amazing sight. So much so that I went down twice in the (forlorn) hope of getting some decent pictures. I also loved the classic car/hot rod scene. The stereotypes were sort-of marginal: I didn't see any guns being openly carried but there were plenty of signs restricting entry to various places with guns, so they must be around. Religion is also present but not pervasive, and there wasn't anything like the military-and-flag obsession you see on TV. Austin is pretty liberal though. Finally, I'll just point out that I only had to travel 5300 miles to watch a Stoke City match on free-to-air TV…at 7.00 a.m.. Thanks, Premier League and Sky!

Was it all worth it? Yes, I think so. I learned a lot, engaged with ideas and subjects outside my usual field, and joined in some interesting debates, while having a few days in a totally different culture. But next time it's going to be somewhere I can reach by train and boat!

Some of my favourite photos. The rest are here

Texas State Capitol

Sunset over Lake Travis





Lake Travis again







Release the bats!