Telling Tales Out of School: Impact, Literature and the Academy

by Duncan Wheeler

University lecturers may not be as prominent as the variously smiling and despondent faces regaling you with free newspapers or enticing you to donate to charities, but you may or may not have noticed that we are popping up all over the place. I have just returned from a workshop of bright young things shortlisted for the AHRC-BBC New Generation Thinkers Scheme. Corralled in Media City, Salford, we were regaled with tales of how the initiative, now in its fifth year, has courted both praise and controversy: the scheme and its participants have been endorsed with a front-cover spread by the Guardian, while Rowan Pelling from the Daily Telegraph lamented how ‘It’s enough to make you hanker for the days when those who wanted to think deep thoughts joined academe, and those who wanted to buzz became journalists.’ I think I know what she means. I’m similarly discombobulated by the way so many local policemen and women go that extra mile to be personable and engage you in polite conversation. Memories from the 1980s growing up opposite Aston Villa football club ensure that I always detect some latent unpleasantness in their quite possibly benign smiles; perverse thought it may seem, I feel more at home with Spain’s unreconstructed Guardia Civil, from who nobody in their right mind would think to ask directions.

The early 21st-century academic model to which I belong might not necessarily be any less condescending in their outlook, but the need to charm parents at open days and at least pay lip-service to the utility or, to employ the current buzzword, ‘impact’ of our work ensures that we need to work hard to cloak feelings of both inferiority and superiority. To employ one of those stock phrases they teach on academic leadership courses, I have learnt to ‘occupy the landscape’; a less generous aphorism would render this as ‘you hum it, I’ll play it.’ It’s not, however, clear that this makeover has been altogether successful: we were nicely informed at the workshop that focus groups had complained about Radio 3 being too academic, meaning not that its presenters necessarily worked in universities, but rather that they were lacking in passion and conviction, professionally ambivalent. I fear I’m going to conform to type in my appraisal of the ‘impact’ agenda, by which universities are obliged to demonstrate the tangible effects of their labours beyond the ivory tower, and what it means for 21st-century academia and society more broadly. Impact forms part of a more general move towards macro- and micro-management, of which the Research Excellence Framework (REF) is the most visible manifestation. The current REF-guidelines demand a certain number of impact case studies per academic unit; their evaluation is as fraught and flawed as the entire process, but it does provide the scope for genuinely innovative collaborations and initiatives: the ethos it has inspired allowed me to dedicate time to hosting the CNTC (the Spanish National Classical Theatre Company) in Leeds, their first visit to the UK since appearing at the Edinburgh Festival in the early 1990s. Conversely, however, the demands now imposed by most major grant bodies in the humanities (the privately funded Leverhulme Trust is a marked exception) for every project to have an impact component not only distorts the kind of research that is undertaken, but also raises serious questions about the power of private businesses to direct both public funding and research priorities.

Impact both under- and over-estimates what we are capable of achieving: indulging the solipsistic fantasies of grandeur to which my profession is susceptible, it assumes that we are capable of changing the world, while simultaneously downgrading the intrinsic value of research or scholarly endeavour. The application of this model to the humanities results in the kind of absurdities that could easily furnish David Lodge with enough material to return to the fray by way of a 21st-century campus novel: having frequently jettisoned their extra-mural activities and departments, there is a wonderful irony in the way that academics and students now traipse off to some municipal building in which members of the general public are sometimes conspicuously absent. If they are present, they are often ignored, even when they are genuinely interested and interesting individuals. Rarely have I been left indifferent by people attending events I´ve organised: I’d either happily have dinner with them or have found them to be tedious bores, social misfits and cultivated eccentrics, whose eyes you desperately have to avoid when it comes to fielding questions from the audience.

Over the course of the last academic year, I have coordinated International Writers at Leeds (IWAL), a scheme which my colleagues Helen Finch, Richard Hibbitt and Matthew Treherne set up in 2012. The precursor to this initiative emerged from discussions at an event on German Writers in Translations – funded predominantly by a new Knowledge Exchange pot established by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) – the year before, in which the reported resurgence of literature in translation made us think about how we might capitalise upon this in West Yorkshire. Our first guest was the dynamic albeit somewhat belligerent Clemens Meyer, which heralded the subsequent ongoing collaboration with Leeds Public Library. The initiative was then officially launched with a genuinely well-attended talk by the renowned Swiss writer Christian Kracht, who has frequently courted controversy in his literature and journalism through the depiction of such politicised historical moments as the Iranian Revolution, while being the target of largely unfounded accusations of racial provocation.

During the wine reception that followed Kracht’s talk, I noticed that a Goethe bust had been vandalised in the library. This, I was informed, was the work of local hooligans incensed at the Germans following the outbreak of World War I. For better or worse, literature and literary figures no longer stir such strong emotions in the local community; IWAL has nevertheless hosted over a dozen events with writers from France, Germany, Spain, Canada, Russia, Iran, and China. Numbers generally oscillate between 30 and 80 with members of the universities complemented by alumni, local school children and literary aficionados. The turnout for socially-conscious Spanish rapper, El Chojin, in 2013 was particularly large and diverse: in spite of having to respond to an impassioned but awkward interrogation about why his lyrics have never grappled with the issue of borstals, he was sufficiently impressed by the city and his audience that he returned to deliver a concert to over 300 people the following year. Less positively, our proud boasts about fostering a global and cosmopolitan outlook are somewhat undermined by the fact that audiences tend to be composed along partisan national lines; prior to taking charge of the initiative, I must confess I only tended to attend the non-Hispanic-related events if there was a definite possibility of free wine being on offer.

Enlightened self-interest is very much the name of the game: it is unlikely that IWAL would have ever got off the ground or kept its momentum going if the impact agenda had not entered the scholarly arena. There is a hypocritical irony in the fact that some, although by no means all, of my colleagues who bemoan the increasingly corporate nature of higher education are equally frustrated by the increasingly limited opportunities for professional moonlighting. Opera North paid me £150 a few years ago to do an introduction to a film screening but, since signing a partnership agreement with the University of Leeds, now expect us to render our services for free or, more accurately, as part of our professional duties. While individual academics have always sought to engage with the local community to a greater or lesser extent, universities are now keen – some would say desperate – to support initiatives of this kind at an institutional level. Outside agencies have got wise to this: a spokesman for the BBC may claim to have been overwhelmed for the over 1,000 applications for the New Generations scheme, but it is effectively predicated on a crowd-sourcing model, which assumes that a sufficient number of academics and their institutions will be happy to finance their trips to the BBC studios.

Although he found it an unwanted and all-too-familiar intrusion, it was something of a relief to me that El Chojin was stopped in a city-centre street for photos by some enthusiastic Spanish fans; one of my top priorities with IWAL has been to avoid what I term ‘Billy Bragg syndrome.’ I have nothing against the Bard of Barking either personally or musically, but it irritates me how frequently he and his female equivalent, Eddie Reader, are wheeled out by the BBC as the voice of 'popular music.’ At most, he is an artist who works in a popular idiom; he simply doesn’t sell enough records or concert tickets to adopt the mantle of the conscience, let alone the voice, of popular song. Much like the cheese-and-pickle sandwiches followed by water-melon provided at the lunch for the New Generation workshop, Bragg and Reader are edifying but predictable budget options. In contrast, I have sought to adopt a dual strategy for IWAL: invite major figures, and provide a platform for undiscovered talent. Nevertheless, the danger of seeking to attract marquee names on a limited budget is that it renders you increasingly dependent on personal connections, and thereby frequently reinforces pre-existing elites.

In the case of both Kracht and El Chojin, their prior working relationships with two of my colleagues were instrumental in them being offered and accepting invitations, while we were able to pay the Swiss writer an unusually generous honorarium because the dean of the faculty works on him, and organised a day-long study-event to coincide with his visit. I invited Ángeles González Sinde, Spain’s controversial former Minister of Culture who has partially reinvented herself by becoming a prize-winning author, to make her first visit to a British university as a result of a friendship that has been forged largely on the basis of a surprising number of mutual acquaintances. These range from her brother – who facilitated the CNTC’s trip to Leeds – to her first employer, Gay Mercader (his maternal uncle, Ramón, killed Trotsky while, on his father’s side, he is nephew to Vittorio de Sica, the great Italian filmmaker), Spain’s most important live music promoter.

The world is indeed very small or, perhaps more accurately, my world is very small. At a time when ethics and ethical training has become a veritable industry in the higher education sector, I’m not sure we – or, indeed, anyone – have ever got to grips with the criteria for determining who ought to be invited to speak at public cultural events. Ángeles’ visit was, on the one hand, a very poetic invitation: Vicente, the protagonist of her novel El buen hijo (The Good Son, 2014) dreams of escaping a humdrum existence in which he is subject to the whims and needs of others; his preferred alternative is to become a lector in a British city with a strong musical heritage such as Leeds, Birmingham or Sheffield. Local references to Spain and post-industrial Britain were met with complicit chuckles by an audience engrossed by tales of how much better behaved, punctual and disciplined Iron Maiden were than most politicians. A number of junior, frequently temporary, Spanish colleagues nevertheless subsequently told me they had felt uneasy about me inviting a figure who belonged to a government they rightly or wrongly believe to be responsible for the economic crisis in Spain that has led them to seek employment abroad, out of necessity rather than choice.

In line with much of the higher education system, the whole impact agenda is plainly ridiculous, but that doesn’t mean that it is devoid of opportunities or charm. Having always harboured desires to become a globe-trotting rock journalist, I can now spend guilt-free work days being reimbursed, albeit modestly, by Spanish cultural supplements to write up reviews or AC/DC or Julio Iglesias concerts in the name of dissemination. I’m not altogether convinced that this is of any immediate benefit to anyone other than yours truly; my ethical consolation is that unless it has a negative impact on my teaching and research, the theoretical mainstay of my profession and indeed vocation, then neither is it doing anyone any harm. Not everyone is as sanguine about the current situation. In ‘Why I Quit,’ an already infamous piece published in the London Review of Books in Autumn 2014, Marina Warner rallies against the increasingly top-heavy corporate style of modern British universities. The response to the title is, however, disarmingly simple: despite earlier assurances to the contrary, her current employers, the University of Essex, prohibited her from taking up a non-stipendiary lectureship at All Souls in Oxford unless she took unpaid leave. I can perfectly understand her frustration, and I agree with many of her complaints about the higher education system – the willingness to take on under-par fee-paying graduate students, an exponential growth in administrators and philistinism – but I was somewhat less convinced by her portrait of my colleagues and me as sacrificial lambs to the slaughter.

In my experience, the correspondent from the Daily Telegraph was closer to the mark: ‘Most professions harbour rivalry and backbiting, but academics make politicians look like fawning puppies.’ A rhetorical trope we share with the political classes is to claim that we only accepted or put ourselves forward for prestigious appointments under duress, following pressure from our peers. Warner comments on how she had to be persuaded by Essex to accept an offer to chair the Man Booker Prize – in her case, this may very well be true, but like civil servants and knighthoods, 99.9% of my colleagues would need little coercion to take on such a role unless they could gain leverage from very publicly rejecting it. Impact, like the REF, is the scourge of frequently quite understandable ridicule, but that doesn’t prevent it from being taking deadly seriously. I never use social media myself, but I can reel off with disarming speed the fact that my review of a Julio Iglesias concert at the Royal Albert Hall has been tweeted 72 times and received 345 likes on Facebook.

If ours were indeed such a dreadful profession, why are we constantly trying to encourage new recruits? Especially if there is the prospect of a potential promotion on the horizon, students are often hoodwinked by prospective supervisors into taking out bank loans to cover tuition fees, without letting them know that there isn’t necessarily an academic job waiting for even the most promising of researchers at the end of their graduate study. I was first employed as a teaching fellow on a 12-month contract in 2009; my 40% tax-paying colleagues and I ought to feel a collective sense of shame that we did little to protest such contracts being reduced to ten months, while demonstrating under ‘say no to a poverty age’ banners about our pensions becoming marginally less generous. Apocalyptic formulations such as ‘public or perish’ are frequently brandished, but what we are less likely to concede is that those who can convince the right people and institutions that we are – to employ a wonderful piece of REF doublespeak that panders to academic hubris – paradigm shifters have benefitted as the quantitative and qualitative analysis of our research has allowed at least some of us to rise far quicker than ever before. In my own case, the much repeated claim that academics have, in real terms, suffered a pay-cut of 13% in less than a decade is nothing short of a fallacy: there is no way that, even 10 years ago, I would have been promoted to the rank of Associate Professor – what used to be called Senior Lecturer – at the age of 32, and just three years after defending my thesis.

On the one hand, it is one of neo-liberalism’s trump cards to pit so-called winners against losers; but we also need to bear in mind to what extent we have been complicit in such processes in the past, present and future. Especially in the light of the Conservative victory in last May’s General Election, we must be self-critical and aware of how we are perceived from the outside if we are genuinely committed to protecting national treasures such as the NHS or universities. Although I am sympathetic to many of the strains the medical profession has been subjected to over recent years, doctors continue to sabotage their own public image by focussing their complaints on pay and pensions. Medical training courses are also curiously silent on the fact that the post-war Labour government effectively had to blackmail many of them into working for the nascent NHS, which many in the profession feared, incorrectly, would threaten their generous salaries. Much like Don Quixote tilting at windmills, academics are similarly too easily led astray by the false comforts of fictions of their own makings and longings for a lost Arcadia. Unlike the knight from La Mancha, however, we show few signs of recoiling from the material world: it would honour us both individually and collectively if we followed his example instead of piping up only when our own personal interests are at stake.

The reaction to Warner’s provocation in the letters page of the London Review of Books, alongside the anecdotal feedback she reports in a follow-up piece, ‘The Betrayal of Higher Education,’ seemingly take it as axiomatic that her arguments were gospel; might not our ‘common sense’ simply be indicative of our failure to engage with those outside our personal and professional cliques, who may very well harbour radically different thoughts about the nature or our privileges and responsibilities? If only as an antidote to this professional myopia, the impact agenda could perhaps have something to teach us after all. Our current position is conducive to neither to our personal or collective well-being. First, once you are above a certain base-line, feeling under-paid and, by implication, under-appreciated subscribes to a mercantile approach to status and identity from which we claim we are seeking to flee; and, second, it is unlikely to make us many friends or influence people beyond the cult of collective professional sophism. At this point, alarm bells really need to ring: if there is one thing a 21st-century paradigm-shifting impact junkie can’t afford, it’s to be disliked, misunderstood or, worst of all, simply ignored.