Conference Paper from ‘Theorising the Popular’ Conference at Liverpool Hope

 This post is a copy of a paper which I gave at my very first conference this summer. It was part of the fourth international Theorizing the Popular Conference held at Liverpool Hope University(details here). I am pleased to have given my first paper and include it in full. As a result of being designed to be read aloud, it is chatty in tone, but I hope that you enjoy having a read! 
In an age of austerity cuts, it seems that everything that does not produce immediate profits is subject to scrutiny and squeezes. Higher Education and more specifically, humanities departments are under pressure.

 In this paper I will focus on one specific discipline within the broader field of the humanities. I feel that the situation facing English is one that speaks to all humanities subjects to some extent; the ideas may be extrapolated across the wider field. The nature of my project makes it is difficult not to relate to personal experience. Watching the stresses within an English Department as a graduate student – I feel I have a stake in conversations about the future of English.

I am compelled to understand the social situation surrounding me. I would like to understand how Higher Education appears to those who are not engaged within the internal affairs. By this I mean people who aren’t policy makers and people who aren’t humanities scholars. To do this I have turned to popular culture. Not only is it far less boring than governmental white papers, it also offers a source that is far more widely encountered. This paper features a BAFTA winning film Educating Rita and a contemporary TV sitcom Fresh Meat that presents different representations of the contemporary English Academic.

Before looking at these examples, I will briefly outline the current situation of English departments within Higher Education in the cold light of day.

Our situation is one in which the effects of irreversible decisions of policy makers are being felt in universities across the country. The government’s Independent Review of Higher Education and Student Finance, commonly known as The Browne Report of 2010 is a substantial milestone in the history of Higher Education.  It poses permanent changes to the way in which education is financed, but also the way in which specific disciplines are evaluated as worthwhile. It ensured privatization and the construction of an inter-university competitive market with a subsequent raise of tuition fees. 
There is an atmosphere of growing concern amongst humanities scholars as the reputation of universities is increasingly based on numerical tables and visible research income. The word impactdominates discussions of value in Higher Education. There is anxiety as to how the humanities can substantiate their worth in these empirical terms.

As you may be aware, Martha Nussbaum is a leading voice in the defense of the humanities, and she argues that to attract funding “Impact” is the buzzword of the day”. Nussbaum is clear to establish that and “by impact the government clearly means above alleconomic impact”.

Nussbaum is by no means alone in her complaint. Many have defended the value of the discipline of English in a similar style. They focus on the economic language of governmental white papers, the depressing numerical data surrounding the funding allocation and the limiting parameters of RAE assessment criteria as the subject of their complaint.

 I want to attempt an alternative approach that might reinstate some optimism in an evaluation of English.

Today my method defends the disciplines through qualities that we possess as scholars of the humanities. This is not a paper tackling economics. I am not going to offer a five-point plan to ensure English remains valuable in years to come.

Instead I’d like to make use of the skills integral to our understanding of English. I will use an analysis of popular culture to expand the current debate in our own terms… these are less black and white than policy papers, and open up many new areas of discussion.

I am currently interested in the most popular representations of scholarship that I can find. At the moment I have limited these representations to fictional portraits but in time I look forward to engaging with real-life “sensational” scholars such as the renowned Mary Beard.

In short, I don’t want to play the game of economics with the policy makers. That way we are only set to lose.

Let’s try playing a game that we are good at. Let’s play by our own rules.

English scholars are good at close reading cultural artifacts and drawing conclusions. Let’s read representations of ourselves.

To clarify: I’m seeking an appropriate criteria for assessment. What I would like to see is the preservation of an environment in which academics are able to work on what they are interested in, through the ambition of intellect and not insurance of financial support.

Whilst I remain continually positive that it should be possible to earn a good living as a humanities scholar, I am sure that I am not alone in feeling that it is a life choice rather than a career choice. Professor Catherine Belsey describes scholarship in the humanities as:  “a vocation and not a career path and if you want to make lots of money, go get a job”

Humanities scholars are passionate about what they do. We’re prone to near-obsessive dedication to task and choose coffee and a red pen over a normal sleep pattern.

If we as individuals treat humanities scholarship in this unquantified, endless and vocational way – why should the defenses of our disciplines engage solely with economic debates? If institutional frameworks only enable a valuation in terms of tangible profit and loss, then our work is clearly being mis-represented.


Popular culture opens an alternative field of representations and valuation. But a warning. The two examples I have chosen today offer caricatures of English scholars. They are stereotypes and provide no role models. But that’s not the point. My two portraits represent the humanities scholar from a popular and not policy-making perspective.

My questions are: what if we look at the situation from a different perspective? What values do others perceive in the humanities disciplines? And what are the weaknesses in the contemporary English department as perceived in popular culture?

I am using cultural stereotypes of English academics as a fun house mirror, to expose the neglected plusses but also capture the unattractive clichés of humanities scholarship.

As I mentioned at the start of my talk, I’m going to use examples from

Educating Rita (released in 1983) directed by Lewis Gilbert starring Michel Caine and Julie Walters

And Fresh Meat (first aired in 2011) which is an on-going popular comedy drama on Channel 4.

Firstly I want to look at the setting of the Universities portrayed in each example, before looking more closely at the represented English scholars within.

Both Fresh Meat and Educating Rita are set at fictional universities. Most likely, the filmmaker doesn’t want a hefty libel lawsuit and fictionalisation allows for a greater freedom of expression.

In Educating Rita, we are informed that the University is in located Liverpool, when in fact it was filmed in Trinity College Dublin. Choosing Trinity might break the geographical authenticity of the film however it is a wise choice in terms of stereotypical university setting. As you can see from the still I have captured from Google Maps – the university boasts lots of typical features. There are quads with manicured grass and there are ominous stone, dare I suggest Ivory, towers.
I have overlaid a still from Educating Rita in the oval shape, showing Rita entering the university for the first time. The overlap from the 2013 image shows how little has changed in 30 years. Trinity remains, at least architecturally, a self-enclosed world unchanging in modern life. 

Similarly Fresh Meat is set at the entirely invented Manchester Medlock. However the set in this case, is a lot closer to home.


Here you see a still from Fresh Meat and a photograph of the John Hughes building at Manchester Met taken from Twitter.

Here the main characters from the sitcom joking in the Student union bar.

Setting is important in representing the academic in Popular Culture: it reveals the environment in which the public expects to find the scholar of English. Whilst Fresh Meat’s Professor Tony Shales operates within a realistic modern university, filmed in 1983 Educating Rita presents a vision of the university as inaccessible. I want to focus on this idea for a short while.

 As Rita enters the insular world of Dr Frank Bryant’s office she is cut off from the outside world. Frank’s office is lined with mysterious old books and Rita physically struggles to even get into the room.  The clip introduces the first stereotype of English writers and scholars – alcoholism. Whilst playfully introduced, with a bottle of gin stashed behind ‘The Lost Weekend it nonetheless reveals a damaging representation of English scholars.  This claim against the humanities is nothing new. Edward Gibbon attending Oxford University in 1752 regarded the college fellows as being (and I quote) ‘steeped in port and prejudice’. In Educating Rita Frank’s desire to excessively drink to escape the everyday is linked to his intellectual boredom. Throughout the film, it is a cliché that cannot be easily shook off.

The second clip from Educating Rita suggests the university is as inaccessible as a difficult door. Whilst this is a clunky metaphor it raises two important considerations. Firstly, it suggests that universities are resistant to outsiders, off limits to some people. Secondly it poses a direct challenge to the individual scholar. Rita’s scalds Frank for not getting round to doing anything. Frank postpones practical change. Not only does the university architecture seemingly act as an agent of obstruction, but Frank does not care to change the situation from within.

A lot has changed since the 1980s . 1980 saw just over 68,000 people obtaining their first degree, whilst in 2011 the number was nearly 360,000.

However, Educating Rita remains one of the most famous films about English Literature and cannot be regarded as wholly outdated. On a more positive note Frank and Rita share a love of literature, and throughout the film the viewer becomes aware that it is the institution and personal circumstances not the process of scholarship that has driven Frank to alcoholism and apathy. Literature and Educating Rita prove to be his salvation.

At the beginning of the film Frank confesses to Rita:

“Between you and me and the walls,

Actually I am an appalling teacher”

However by the end of the film Frank is reminded of what it is like to be a good scholar. Rita’s final words of “Thanks” express the gratitude of having been provided not with anything specific from her education in English but instead,  “a choice”.  

I am now moving on the second trope frequently used in portraying the English scholar in popular culture. They are men. In both Fresh Meat and Educating Rita the teacher figure is male and the students female. 


Other examples of famous male humanties teachers in popular culture include: rivals Professor Belsey and Monty Kipps in Zadie Smith’s novel On Beauty (2005) , Humbert Humbert in Lolita and maybe can be extended as far as the paternal Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series.

From personal experience, I do not think that English in Higher Education is overly masculine. At my home institution just over 47% of Academic Staff are women within the English Department. Whilst this is not completely equal 50 – 50 balance, and the Head of English is indeed a man, I would not say that in seeking an accurate representation of English in Higher Education that the primary figure should necessarily be male.

This clip below is of Professor Tony Shales beginning an affair with a first year undergraduate student – Oregon – whom he teaches. Throughout the two series, Professor Shales is never shown teaching anything – instead we follow his tragic personal life. Adultery is his clichéd stereotype, which persists to the last. Tony remains conscious of his wife’s superiority in the academic sphere. His sense of personal inadequacy is the motivating factor for him seeking an intimate relationship with the adoring Oregon. 


Certainly this is a sad portrait of the English Professor, and is by no means a model to be followed. Like Frank in Educating Rita the representation is not an ideal, and is in fact fraught with feelings of failure.

It is interesting to note that Professor Jean Shales (Tony’s wife) engages more actively in the running of the college, teaching, and in this clip in a public interview on a seemingly prestigious sounding Radio programme. In her field, at least from her husband’s jealous perspective she is a successful scholar. 


In my two examples, the criticism rallied against scholars concerns personal choices and does not challenge intrinsic value. In Fresh Meat the English students are portrayed as enjoying studying most of the time, which contrasts greatly with the trainee dentist and the geologists who loathe their education. Educating Rita extolls the virtues of being able to make an informed choice, which is obtained from humanistic thinking. Whilst some of the individual actions are unsavoury, all hope is not lost!

An analysis of cultural representations of English scholars opens the discussion in which there is an external judgment aside from Higher Education policy.

 My assertion is that by reading Popular Culture aspirations concerning the future of English scholarship may be newly articulated. Fresh Meat and Educating Rita present a complicated picture of scholarship within society. They emphasize that personal choices and institutional practices of the scholars and the students affects the end result.


 In Fresh Meat and Educating Rita pressures of funding allocations are not present. There are good and bad scholars. Good teachers and bad teachers. They are judged on a qualitative, and not quantatitive scale.

Let’s not live up to the depressing stereotypes of English scholars in popular culture. The art of English has long involved interpretation, so perhaps its time to practice this skill upon ourselves.

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