The magic AAB

I was interested to read Peter Scott’s critique of the “government’s decision to allow universities to recruit as many AAB students as they like, while sharply constraining the overall number of students”

To quote his article:

There are two fundamental objections to this policy – one educational and the second ethical. The first is that universities have always chosen students according to their future potential, not past performance. Of course, A-level grades are important evidence of potential. But they should never be treated as decisive evidence, even in an age of mass higher education when computer-generated offers are almost inevitable.

To rely on A-level grades alone is, in effect, further to privilege the already privileged, to give disproportionate rewards to those whose way in life has been smooth. The correlation between school performance and social advantage is too plain to deny. For years universities have attempted, feebly perhaps, to level the playing field by making differential offers. Now, on the fiat of David Willetts, they are no longer so free to do so.

[…]

The ethical objection to the government’s AAB apartheid takes me back to Popper on the Viennese streets 80 years ago. The arguments for widening participation, and for (genuinely) fair access, are usually seen as rooted in ideology of the kind that Popper disapproved of (“social engineering” is the standard put-down). That is only partly true, although unlike Popper I would not disavow collective action to secure social justice. The argument is also about individuals. First, is it fair to offer students an enticement, in the shape of a generous bursary or an attractive fee waiver, in the expectation that they will get AABs, only to withdraw it if they slip a grade (and since when have A-level examiners been infallible?).

But it goes deeper still. The vice-chancellor who swept the “tail” into oblivion from that restaurant table, and the vice-chancellors now struggling to “manage” their AAB entrants, are behaving in the same way as the zealots of right and left who battled in the streets. They are putting an idea, an abstraction, a policy construct, before the lives of real people who are born, live, love and are bound to die.

As Scott observes, these aren’t abstract decisions, made as if we were all so many players of the Sims and presiding over our tiny virtual kingdoms. Instead, these are decision that affect people’s lives – decisions that can make a huge difference to someone’s life and future.

And, indeed, I was one of those people. I don’t have great A-levels, courtesy of the kind of sixth-form experience that screams “mitigating circumstances”. I ended up doing an extra year at a sixth-form college just so I had a set of A-levels that wouldn’t get me instantly rejected from anywhere I applied. On the basis of my A-levels alone, I would be one of those students on restricted intake. However, my sixth-form college were able to give me excellent references and the University of Liverpool, having met me, took a chance on me. Three years later I graduated with a First in English Language and Literature. Eighteen months after that I graduated with an MA in Corpus Linguistics. And now, ten years after doing my first set of A-levels, I find myself writing up my doctoral thesis, presenting at international conferences and teaching. I’d like to think that despite my poor performance at A-level, I’ve not done too badly in academia.

A-levels are just one way to predict someone’s future performance, but they don’t necessarily map onto academic ability. They’re a crude index at best – and at worst, fail to distinguish the students who will thrive in a university environment from those that won’t. Ultimately, it’s in universities’ interests to attract the students who will flourish in the academic setting they offer, and fetishising A-levels above other ways of evaluating potential students does not necessarily do that.

International Women’s Day: Suffrage

I found this brilliant video by Soomo Publishing about the US suffrage movement.

More information on their website.

While it is presented as a linear narrative and simplifies some of the movement’s complexities, there are some great things about it. I like how working women’s voices are included and the video format is very useful at demonstrating how strikingly visual the suffrage movement was – something that can get lost among the text and black-and-white photos.

I especially like how anti-suffrage views are presented: advocated by a woman who is supported by men, and that these views enter into the song as part of a dialogue. The lyrics – “Well, I think you’re psycho/I think that it’s sick/I’m queen of my home, raise my babies/That’s it/Don’t need to vote” are a neat summary of the separate spheres discourse and the elevation of the private, domestic sphere as a rhetorical strategy by anti-suffragists.

However, the problems of the video are similar to the problems of the suffrage movement, and indeed reflective of (some? many?) types of feminism. It’s presented as a narrative where by the end, white, able-bodied, young women step out in confidence and in doing so, present the attainment of suffrage as a triumphant endpoint. There were indeed suffrage campaigners who saw suffrage as a symbolic gesture of equality and who campaigned for women’s suffrage as an end unto itself; these women were often white, financially comfortable and upper and middle-class. However, there were also women, often working class and active in trade unions, who saw the suffrage as a means to gaining employment rights, improve their working conditions, gain healthcare for themselves and their families, and increase support for welfare. These women didn’t have the comfort of financial stability – they were vulnerable if they lost their jobs or couldn’t work, and to them the suffrage was not merely symbolic. Instead it was a step towards dignity and independence with endless practical implications. These women can be left out of the suffrage narratives. Some, like Annie Kenney, negotiated a role within organisations like the Women’s Social and Political Union; others, like the radical, trade unionist, Northern suffragists examined by Jill Liddington and Jill Norris, were “rediscovered” by feminist historians.

As Avory Faucette tweeted earlier today, “Big love for #IWD for all my trans women, queer women, Women Of Colo(u)r, Women With Disabilities, neuroatypical women, fat women, & all women left out of dominant picture”. There are still problems in feminism not addressing the needs of all women, clearly shown in this article about addressing white privilege in feminist organisations. As with the suffrage movement, feminism risks ignoring or dismissing the women with least power but to whom we should be listening to most carefully. The nature of intersectionality means that:

…racism, patriarchy, class oppression and other discriminatory systems create inequalities that structure the relative positions of women, races, ethnicities, classes, and the like. Moreover, intersectionality addresses the way that specific acts and policies operate together to create further disempowerment. For instance, race, ethnicity, gender, or class, are often seen as separate spheres of experience which determine social, economic and political dynamics of oppression. But, in fact, the systems often overlap and cross over each other, creating complex intersections at which two, or three or more of these axis may meet. Indeed, racially subordinated women are often positioned in the space where racism or xenophobia, class and gender meet.

The groups of women mentioned by Faucette are positioned at these intersections of cissexism, homophobia and heteronormativity, racism, ablism, health and beauty norms.

So for me, International Women’s Day isn’t just about celebrating women and the strides made in gender equality – although that’s exciting and important too; after all, it’s encouraging to be able to look back and see you have changed something. It’s also a day of reflecting on the many areas where work remains. I’ve been dipping into the Guardian’s coverage of IWD and liked these articles on the hurdles obstructing equality around the world and migrant and refugee women. It’s important that IWD isn’t just a day of celebration, but also one of anger, protest and, to use the noun so popular when reporting suffragist actions, some old-fashioned outrages.

References:
Liddington, J. and Norris, J. (1978) One Hand Tied Behind Us: The Rise of the Women’s Suffrage Movement. London: Virago

Trans media representation

Perhaps unexpectedly, My Transsexual Summer has focused some of my thoughts about representation, power and self-representation.

There are well-worn tropes in trans documentaries – so well-worn that there is more than one drinking game out there, with invitations to drink for things such as “any reference to genital surgery that refers to “becoming a woman” or “finally a woman””, a “close up of dotted lines in magic marker on pale fleshy body parts”, “if anyone uses the phrase “a man trapped in a woman’s body,” or vice versa”, or to just to down the whole bottle for a camera in an operating theatre. This is the kind of representation the trans community is used to.

My Transsexual Summer was greeted with nervous but hopeful anticipation from the trans community. Channel 4 had signed Trans Media Watch’s Memorandum of Understanding, agreeing to treat trans issues sensitively and accurately. Trans Media Watch was consulted while making the show. These things are a step forward in ensuring that trans people are not just the subjects of a documentary, but have a say in how they are presented in the programme.

Trans people have also written about the My Transsexual Summer series. Juliet Jacques appraised the show and Paris Lees, who was consulted as part of Trans Media Watch, also wrote about the show. Again, I think this is positive – it’s important that specialist documentaries aren’t just reviewed by non-specialists, but that people who know about the area write about them.

from http://www.thegenderbook.com / @thegenderbook


I don’t want to review the show, but instead want to focus on the representation part.

One of the issues with representation is that it simplifies and silences identities in favour of identities constructed by those in power. This is very relevant for the trans community which encompasses a multitude of genders, both binary and non-binary. These identities can be complex and difficult to understand for people who don’t experience them first hand, and are often poorly understood outside the trans community and gender activists. The illustration (click for a larger image) shows this in a playful way – while there are gender identities that roughly map onto “man” and “woman”, there are different ways of expressing manliness and womanliness. Some people are born in one place and move to another. There are identities that aren’t “man” or “woman” and there are also identities that are fluid and don’t stay in one place. This is a pretty simple explanation but it’s a huge area. I hope you can see how complicated gender identity can get.

There were hints that some of the My Transsexual Summer participants identified or had identified outside the gender binary – that they didn’t identify as totally male or female – but there was little to go on because it simply wasn’t discussed or really raised as a possibility.

Max, one of the participants, writes about his dissatisfaction about how they were portrayed:

Now I am watching the show and I see myself, and Fox reduced to bit parts and supporting roles, I see Karen’s story reduced to her anatomy and I see Donna portrayed as a caricature of her real, intelligent self. I see narratives that focus on boobs, unemployment and surgeries and make up and phallus’ privileged over narratives that deal with achievement, employment, happy families, and diversity of gender, race and belief.

He suggests that this was deliberate – that the complicated bits that didn’t fit a simple narrative were edited out, and instead the documentary focused on the kinds of issues satirised in the drinking games.

There are some complicated issues here about who and what gets presented to a largely non-trans audience as trans, and the relationship of trans people to mainstream media producers. Trans people are effectively in a bind – on one hand it’s important to be in mainstream programmes for several reasons. Mainstream programming reaches audiences who don’t read trans-produced media. It can be a useful resource to direct parents, friends, colleagues and supportive others to. It can be incredibly useful and validating for people only just realising they’re trans to see trans people on TV. In a world where trans stories are often ignored or treated as a freak show, My Transsexual Summer did a lot to humanise the people who appeared in it – it showed people who were trying to make a life for themselves, sometimes in the face of outrageous discrimination. Simply appearing in mainstream media demonstrates that you exist to people who were previously unaware of your presence.

However, on the other hand, there is an unequal power dynamic at work. Trans people are rarely the ones producing, directing or scripting these programmes – on board as consultants, but not the ones who make the decisions about what should and should not be included. Trans narratives and experiences are filtered and mediated by non-trans people – there are probably hundreds of hours of footage filmed for My Transsexual Summer but only four hours were actually shown. As Max suggests, the bits left on the cutting room floor suggest something more complicated but ultimately, that reflected the participants more closely. As Fox notes, “not nearly enough people picked up on the fact that most of the airtime was spent highlighting gender binaries and not exploring the how gender is much more fluid than that”; part of the problem here is that an audience unfamiliar with the trans community wouldn’t know what issues are being avoided or elided. Trans people end up having to make difficult decisions about whether it’s more important to have their experiences presented accurately or whether it’s more important to have a trans voice, albeit a mediated trans voice, visible in mainstream media.

There is resistance to this. Trans people started affectionately mocking the disparity between My Transsexual Summer and their own experiences of the trans community under the twitter hashtag #DIYTransSummer (the @DIYTransSummer account started collecting these). Some of the participants in My Transsexual Summer discussed what wasn’t addressed in the TV programmes more extensively on their blogs, in vlogs and on twitter but the problem there is one of audience numbers: far more people watched My Transsexual Summer than read Max’s blog.

Work to address transphobia and inaccuracies in media coverage of trans people is ongoing. Trans Media Action recently held Trans Camp, a workshop that identified five major issues to work on. Two of these issues specially concern media representation of trans issues; a third concerns “mak[ing] producers of comedy aware of who they are making comedy about”. Trans Media Watch submitted a 31 page document to the Leveson Inquiry arguing that “the highly adverse treatment of transgender and intersex people by parts of the press is a stark and instructive example of what newspapers (often but not exclusively tabloid) will seek to get away with when no effective formal or internal restraints are in place” and offering case studies and detailed recommendations.

As well as challenging the representation of trans people in mainstream media, trans people are also producing their own media. META magazine, a new magazine “for T-people by T-people” has just been launched.

As Juliet Jacques notes, “there’s a sense that the excuses that gatekeepers of mainstream liberal and left-wing spaces have previously used to keep out transgender perspectives — that the issues are too complicated, or that transsexual people somehow undermine feminist or socialist politics — are finally becoming untenable”. I hope this is the case and that trans people can look forward to better media representation but due to the nature of the power dynamic and how it manifests itself, I’m unconvinced it will happen unless trans people are in positions where we have more independence and control over media output. We’re getting there, but it’s a potentially slow process.

7 February 1918

My supervisor and I shared a moment of somewhat nerdy joy today. Her current research focus is Charles Dickens and today marks the bicentury of his birth. However, this February marks 94 years since the Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed and I was pleased to see that today the Guardian published the article about the Act from its archives.

As the news report notes, the Act did not extend to franchise to all women, and not on the same terms as men; men could vote from the age of 21 and without property restrictions, but women had different restrictions in place. From the introduction to the Act:

As regards the Parliamentary franchise for women, the Act confers this only on women who have attained the age of 30. In constituencies other than university constituencies there are two alternative qualifications which are as follows :

(1) the woman must be entitled to be registered as a local government elector in respect of the occupation of a dwelling-house (irrespective of value) or of land or premises (other than a dwelling-house) of a yearly value of not leas than 5/. ; or

(2) she must be the wife of a man who is entitled to be so registered.

The university franchise is conferred on all women of the requisite age who have obtained a degree, or, at Oxford or Cambridge, have passed the final examination and kept the necessary residence.

So women had to be over 30 and either have a degree (not easy to come by for a woman then) or own, rent or be married to someone who owned or rented property in order to vote. It wasn’t equal franchise but this Act did pave the way for the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928, which gave women and men equal voting rights.

The Guardian article is rather lovely in its optimism and I can’t resist sharing this section:

We may mourn for what we had hoped for and have not got, but that need not prevent us from rejoicing at the gains which have been won. The adoption of women’s suffrage is the signal victory of an electoral struggle stretching over two generations and represents the greatest triumph in our day of a generous good sense. It is much more than political victory. Measured by purely political results, it may prove to be of less effect than either its friends or its opponents anticipated, though in certain directions, and particularly on all that concerns the position and interests of women before the law and in the State, it is bound to tell, and in time to tell heavily. But beyond that it will modify the whole attitude and outlook of women in society. It will in a real sense bring spiritual as well as political emancipation. Women will realise themselves a little differently and will be differently regarded by others. We are a political people, and the recognition of political equality is the first step to the recognition of equality in every other field where nature has not set up her own barriers.

Of course it’s a product of its time and there’s stuff in there that’s dated by 21st century standards, but it’s amazingly progressive compared to some of the stuff it was contemporary to.

BBC: where hyperbole rules and suffragettes aren’t really suffragettes

As a Khasi and as someone who researches the suffrage movement, I was intrigued to see a BBC article titled Meghalaya, India: Where women rule, and men are suffragettes. Unfortunately it’s not a very good article. The photo of the women wearing jainkyrshah is nice though.

Firstly, my criticisms as a Khasi:

Things that it does cover:

  • OH NOES THE POOR MENZ
  • Statements like “As a mother of children by three different Khasi fathers however, she is the first to admit that their societal anomaly has afforded her ample opportunities to be both a mother and a successful career woman” without any kind of background information so it just sounds judgemental by patriarchal Western standards. Well, yes, if you neglect to mention anything about how Khasi marriages are conducted, how Khasi divorces are conducted or how Khasi inheritance works I suppose it does sound a bit weird, but come on BBC, you are based in a country where you celebrate a man who was married six times, had three children by three different women, and killed three two of his wives. That’s weird.

Things that it does not cover:

  • Meghalaya’s ratio of male and female babies born is one of the most equal in India
  • Why matrilineal inheritance was practised and what it implies for tracing ancestry
  • Any sort of detail on how it actually works
  • Any sort of feminist perspective
  • Any awareness that Khasi men aren’t subjected to the same kind of treatment that women experience in other parts of India. It’s not like Khasi boys are aborted, denied access to education, experience poor health, are malnourished, experience domestic violence, or are the victims of ‘honour killings’ because they are boys (link)
  • That there are other tribes that have similar practices such as the Jaintia
  • Any other reasons for alcoholism and drug abuse – for example, poverty

As someone who researches the suffrage movement, I find it a lazy comparison. Is this about the vote? Is this about corverture? Are specifically men working in appalling conditions and have no way to raise their concerns in a political arena? Are specifically men’s health problems routinely ignored? As far as I’m aware, Khasi men aren’t disenfranchised for being men.

However, the suffragette comparison is interesting for a different reason, and that is the history of North-East Indian separatist movements. There is an issue that people in North-East India feel that they lack a political voice because of the area’s geographical isolation and cultural differences – for example, differences between tribal cultures and more mainstream Indian culture. There are underground separatist groups and they do engage in direct action, such as bombs in Assam. I don’t think I’d want to make explicit parallels between the movements, but if I absolutely had to make a dubious, lazy argument I was thoroughly ashamed of, I’d say Khasi men may feel disenfranchised because they are Khasi rather than because they are men.

Anyway, now that’s all out of my system I can get back to marking. Didn’t want my marking to be affected by my grumpiness!

Suggestive placement isn’t dead!

In the early 20th century, news reports were grouped into articles. These articles often shared a theme – for example, being about the same or related events. What I find interesting is when these news reports aren’t all explicitly about the same thing, but the grouping primes the reader to expect a link or common factor shared between them. For example, one of the articles I’m looking at places a report about the funeral of Emily Wilding Davison (the suffragette knocked down and killed when she crossed the Derby racetrack), a report about two suffragettes suspected of setting fire to a racecourse as part of the WSPU arson campaign, a report about a woman injured at a WSPU meeting in Hyde park, a report about a bomb found in a ladies waiting room at a train station, and a report about the “vivisection question”.

Some of these links are obvious, but some are less so. I think the report about vivisection is there because prominent anti-vivisectionists were also members of the suffrage campaign – notably Frances Power Cobbe, who founded the British Union for Abolition of Vivisection and was involved with the London National Society for Women’s Suffrage. There’s also a link in that there was staunch opposition to the anti-vivisection campaign.

However, the report on the bomb found in the station waiting room doesn’t explicitly mention suffrage campaigners. Instead it relies on the audience’s familiarity with the arson campaign and the report’s proximity to other reports about suffrage disorder to guide the reader into an interpretation they might not otherwise have made. Placing that particular report alongside those other reports is suggestive – it doesn’t say that suffrage campaigners were responsible for the bomb, but that’s the conclusion a reader will probably reach.

Suggestive placement can also be used to form resistant readings, to provide commentary or to encourage a critique. It doesn’t actually put anything into something so explicit as words, but an editorial stance can be made clear through placement and juxtaposition.

I suspect it’s used less often now because of the different way newspapers are organised (and reading the news through online news articles again changes things) but I am utterly delighted by the Guardian‘s sublime front page today. Nothing as crass or explicit or likely to obtain furious reactions as actual words, but there’s a news editor out there who put this together with a wink and a gleeful grin.

After all, they’re both important news stories. No one can actually complain that the Guardian put important news stories on the front page. And that’s a dramatic shot of the Costa Concordianews reports from around the world are using similar. It’s totally justifiable why they’d want both news stories on the front page and why they’d use that particular photograph. And yet…

Suggestive placement: the art of saying something without saying anything at all.

I’m impressed.

Idealism

A year and a month ago I was sleeping inside a university occupation. The temperatures were subzero, there was snow lying on the ground outside, and the heating and electricity in the hall we were occupying had mysteriously suffered faults. At the time, it was sometimes hard to gauge the support we had – we certainly had support from all kinds of people both within and outside the community. However, there were also people who regarded us with a certain detachedness, as if we were overreacting in ridiculous fashion.

And so I found this recent report on growing anger about higher education reforms interesting, particularly the following:

There have been three responses […] The third is to regard the government’s reforms as heralding the death of the university as a public and liberal institution. Key academic values are under attack, whether scholarship in the humanities or curiosity-driven science. So are key social values such as widening participation.

[…]

It is the third response that seems to be gathering force. No longer confined to the “usual suspects” such as the National Union of Students and the University and College Union, it is gradually becoming established as the dominant response among the academic rank-and-file and high-profile public intellectuals. Not so long ago, the much-despised “chattering classes” shared the politicians’ low opinion of universities; now they are rallying to their defence.

However, as well as defending our universities’ existence, there’s also an opportunity to ask what we want our universities to be. Jennifer Jones and Martin Eve discuss this as “angry young academics” who want universities to be more than just consumerism. Mark has recently been posting material about the neoliberal university and I’ve found it really thought provoking.

As a young academic in the arts and humanities, I am aware of what we lose because of this neoliberal model of the university, particularly when it comes to funding young researchers. The important and fascinating PhD theses not written because the applicant couldn’t get funding. The scientists who can’t work on non-commercial projects because there isn’t money to support that. The ways projects that don’t have an immediately obvious economic benefit are devalued. The scrabbling about for limited amounts of funding which means that interesting and valuable ideas never get explored. Collaboration across departments or institutions that doesn’t happen because it’s difficult to work out who should be funding it.

And more and more, I’m led to question whether I want to fight for this system. I want to work in a university that is visionary and creative, rigorous and challenging, nurturing and supportive. The university I want to work in values research regardless of its economic usefulness, and values curiosity and exploration. The university I want to work on is aware of power and privilege, is critical and reflexive. Perhaps it’s the stage I’m at in my PhD (the despair, wailing and general hideousness stage), but at the moment I’m doubtful this happens on a university level.

I’m probably hopelessly idealistic about this. I am glad, though, that there are the beginnings of a debate about whom universities should serve, and I hope it does led to a change.

Some blog love

I’ve been ridiculously busy lately (teaching! training! seeing Jen Gupta perform as part of Manchester Science Festival and London Bright Club! linguistics reading group! oh yeah, that thesis thing I’m writing! trying to get my boiler fixed!) so not really had time to think of interesting posts, so here’s a few links to blogs I read:

BAD REPBad Reputation is a collective of writers on a “feminist pop culture adventure”. In the interests of transparency I should declare that they have plied me with cake, but I’d like them anyway because they’re incisive, intelligent and pretty awesome. I particularly like their series of Revolting Women because it contains not one, not two, but THREE posts about the suffrage movement: the Ju-Jutsuffragettes, Dora Thewlis, Teenage Working Class Suffragette and Joan of Arc, Rosie the Riveter, and the Feminist Protest Icon. They also write about films, comics, music and computer games in an interesting, thought-provoking and entertaining way. I actually LOLed at Markgraf’s illustrated review of The Three Musketeers and don’t feel the cinematic experience can begin to compare their final analogy involving pick-and-mix and “an enraged muskrat”.

Robert Lawson is a sociolinguist and brave soul who’s blogged about John Locke’s Duels and Duets in detail – part 1, part 2 and part 3. I’m reading this book for the reading group, mainly because I’m intrigued as to how a book on language and gender manages to cite Deborah Tannen but not Deborah Cameron. In the first chapter Locke cites John Gray’s Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, Deborah Tannen’s You just don’t understand, a baffling amount of primate research, and an anecdote from Larry Summers. I almost did the drinking game but I think I’d have to have my stomach pumped. Anyway, you can read Robert’s excellent, informative posts on this book and so avoid reading the primary source. Even if it does mean missing out on the primate research.

Lashings of Ginger BeerLashings of Ginger Beer are a queer feminist burlesque collective who combine “songs, dancing, stand-up and sketches, luxe Victoriana drag with thigh-high fetish-boots, upbeat musical theatre optimism with 21st-century political rage”. Have a couple of videos: Acceptable, skewering Gok Wan, television makeovers, unrealistic gendered beauty ideals and the expense and effort of maintaining this beauty; Dead Girlfriend which comments on TV portrayals of queer relationships and the way the characters involved are punished. The Lashings of Ginger Beer blog posts about events and does link roundups, but also features posts by members of the collective. I was particularly struck by this post examining the different effects of performing with different dancers – it’s a really thoughtful analysis and highlights the experience of the performers.

I was lucky to meet Jennifer Jones when we were both facilitators at Research Practices 2.0. Her reflections on that event are interesting, and have also shaped how she’ll facilitate social media workshops in the future; there are loads of ideas there about questioning the usual classroom hierarchy and enabling a flexible, responsive, collaborative way of learning. Jennifer’s research focuses on the Olympics and offers a much needed critical view on the ideology of the Olympics, which she explored in a recent talk at Tent City Uni. She’s also a very cool lady and it’s a joy to talk to her, whether that be over crappy university coffee, mugs of tea in an occupation or, indeed, over a pint.