• Kat Gupta’s research blog

    caution: may contain corpus linguistics, feminism, activism, LGB, queer and trans stuff, parrots, London

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.

Better learning through cake

Let us travel back in time, around 13 or 14 years ago or so, and revisit my experience of compulsory education. More specifically, a subject for which I reserved particular loathing and hatred: Food Tech.

My friend Maria and I shared a counter and sink. We weren’t just bad – we were inspired. We ruined pasta. We earned the rage and ire of our Food Tech teacher by swapping bits of our scone dough (mine – sultana, hers – coconut) to create mutant scones. And finally, there was The Fruitcake. The Fruitcake was the nadir of my brief foray into cooking and sufficiently traumatised me to Never Ever try baking again because I would unleash untold horrors. Again. We had technology for the double period – two hours – in the afternoon, and I remember sitting in the classroom after the bell had rung and my friends had gone home, waiting for the teacher to allow me to take it out of the oven. I thought it was done; she was convinced it wasn’t. The result was so dry it sucked all moisture out of your mouth and made saliva a distant and fond memory. In the end I crumbled it up for the birds because my family, long suffering as they were, quite understandably refused to take it to extremes.

At the age of thirteen, I decided that I distrusted this baking malarky and would have nothing to do with it. In fact, Maria and I were genuinely worried we’d starve or die of scurvy if we had to fend for ourselves.

Years later, and I find myself reasonably competent in the kitchen. Soup, risotto, curries, roasted vegetables, lentilly-couscousy-salady things – yep. But despite my love of cake, I haven’t dared bake anything. I’ve watched people bake, I’ve enthusiastically tested their baking, I’ve regularly attended my LGBT Network’s Queer Cafe and I’ve even decorated cakes (sadly, this seems to be the best photo of the Spiderman cake but it was pretty awesome). I’ve just never quite worked up the confidence to combine flour, eggs and sugar in a mixing bowl. Logically, I know I’ve cooked far more complicated stuff than this but it was no good: I had The Fear.

My friend Hannah at Stress Baker told me that baking is an excellent way to escape from PhD stress and bakes delicious things so often she’s started a blog. My housemate made carrot cake last evening and it smelt wonderful plus, as she argued, the amount of carrot and dried fruit in it meant it was at least one of your 5-a-day and therefore good for you. You can even buy butch cupcakes if your fragile masculinity is threatened by baked goods or you’re amused by manifestations of socially constructed and validated performances of gender. Also, and let this point not go unnoticed, you end up with cake.

So I found a recipe that seemed to offer maximum return/chocolate for minimum effort/skill and an hour or so later, had this:
Chocolate cake on a plate
Perhaps not the most beautiful of cakes, but who cares, it tastes fine. And, more importantly, can’t be used as a substitute for floral foam.

It made me think a lot about experiences of learning. As PhD researchers and academics, we tend to be good in our fields. It might not always be easy and we’re not going to be amazing at every single area within our field, but usually it doesn’t compare to the head-banging frustration of studying something you have absolutely no talent at and are scared of. Those we teach sometimes have no previous experience of whatever we’re trying to teach them, but they often have some – and had bad experiences rather than good ones.

In my experience, it’s often grammar; they’ve found it boring or confusing or pitched at the wrong level – too easy, too hard, or suddenly lurching from “easy” to “scarily difficult”. Sometimes they had a bad teacher. Sometimes the exercises were boring and tedious. Sometimes it’s been taught in isolation and no one’s shown how it can be used to analyse texts. The experience of being told you’re rubbish at something has many effects, not least lack of confidence, resentment and aversion.

Sometimes, when you’re good at something, it’s unfathomable how anyone could possibly find it difficult. It’s useful to make ourselves uncomfortable to remind us how that feels in order to be better teachers.

For that reason, I have purchased white chocolate chips and dried cranberries. Exactly that reason.

New College of Humanities

Been a bit of a busy few weeks. I’ve been attempting to write more of my methodology (it’s been in progress since Jan 2009 and I’m at the stage of loathing and despair) but I also went undercover (my cover name: Jo King) to a dating seminar aimed at heterosexual women (it would have been full of lulz but for the fact that women were taken in by this gender essentialist, heteronormative, frankly insulting crap and were spending some £500 to go on a weekend filled with more of the same).

However, the post-apocalyptic maelstrom of higher education has just got a bit more turbulent with the announcement of the New College of the Humanities. Dan Rebellato summarises it as:

A C Grayling has announced the formation of a new private college of Higher Education. The New College of the Humanities will charge fees of £18,000 and students will be taught be such renowned media dons as Grayling, Richard Dawkins, Ronald Dworkin, David Cannadine, Niall Ferguson, Steve Jones, and Peter Singer. There will be core courses in scientific literacy, applied ethics, and critical thinking, and then students will specialise in law, philosophy, economics, history, English literature, or some combination of those.

Other people have written about this:
Tery Eagleton: AC Grayling’s private university is odious
Research Blogs: Is the New College of the Humanities a good thing?
Crooked Timber: If you’re an egalitarian, how come you’re trying to sell an undergraduate arts degree that costs more than an MBA?
Student Theory: New College for the Humanities: Emperor’s New Clothes
Dan Rebellato: New College of the Humanities

I spent some of yesterday talking to friends about this, one of whom went on to write Thirteen ways of looking at the New College of the Humanities.

My initial reaction is wariness, on both an ideological and academic level. Is the solution to chronic underfunding of the humanities one of making them the preserve of a rich elite? It’s already happening at undergraduate level and pretty widespread at doctoral level. This is neither fair nor good for research.
Academically, I can’t really see those top academics taking first-year tutorials – and, indeed, at least two academics will only be lecturing for one hour in the first year and the minimum for most professorial staff is five hours in the first year. Despite being a typical Arts undergrad, I had most contact hours than that a week! Admittedly six, but still… So who is going to be teaching? And, if you’re going to be taught by academics who aren’t media stars, i.e. the kind of academics you’ll find in universities up and down the country, what are you paying for?

The things I do find interesting are the focus on critical thinking and scientific literacy, and the way these degrees are aimed at those who don’t want to go into academia. Critical thinking and scientific literacy are important (although teaching critical thinking to people who are paying twice the going rate for a UoL degree could be…interesting). While I did not enjoy my Biology and Chemistry A-levels At All, they’ve come in useful when discussing variables, p-values, research design and, er, cisgenderism.
I’m also intrigued by the focus of a degree that is aimed at passionate, engaged students but isn’t an elaborate pyramid scheme and doesn’t just flail about going “um, transferable skills! yes! those are useful!”. I didn’t apply to study English because I wanted to develop excellent communication and time management skills – I did it because I loved words and language and wanted to know how they worked. This, to me, is one of the interesting things about arts and humanities degrees. While some degrees have more obvious applications – economics, for example – how do you make a passionate love for seventeenth century literature applicable in a job market? Never fear though, Grayling’s on the case.