University of Exeter Students’ Guild Teaching Awards 2015

Photo: Exeter Student’s Guild 

This year I was shortlisted for ‘Best Postgraduate Teacher’ at the University of Exeter Student’s Guild Teaching Awards. These Awards were the first of this kind to be established in the UK (2009) and remains the largest in the country. Over 1 million words in praise of teaching at the University of Exeter have been collected to date! The Guild says the awards: 

“are designed to reward and recognise the hard work of our staff to improve the student experience at the University of Exeter.”

It was a shock but an obvious delight to be shortlisted for an award and I was even more pleased when on the night I found out I ranked second overall and as top in the College of Humanities.

Monica and I celebrating. Photo: Exeter Student’s Guild

 The winner of the Best Postgraduate Teacher, Monica Ronchi was from the Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies and from meeting her on the night it is clear she is a passionate and enthusiastic educator (as well as a fun colleague and decent human being!). It is likely that we would not have met should the event have not brought us as PGR teachers into the same venue and given us a  few glasses of wine. 

Wine is important, but getting academics together to celebrate is equally vital. Too often gatherings are based around thematic intellectual ideas, funding allocations, interviews, departmental meetings and not around personal achievements and passion. These Teaching Awards brought together a group of people who share an interest outside of books, in the world, with real people and their lives. It was great! 

However nice the accolade of being shortlisted is, it was the ethos behind this event that made me feel proud of the teaching that I have undertaken this term. It is perhaps the only event I have encountered in five years at Exeter involving academic staff at the university that looks at teaching as its focus, not an add-on, a must-do, a grin-at-bear-it task in academia. It got me thinking about my own research around ‘value’, as it was an event driven by the optional and qualitative impressions of the students themselves. There was no clear criteria or targets to hit, many of the people nominated expressed their surprise at being there at all. 

GTAs or Postgraduate Teachers can sometimes get a bad rap, but as a result of the awards this year academic within the College sent round emails thanking each and every PhD student who contributes to the teaching within the college. This is a step in the right direction. The more positivity around teaching the better. Teaching in Higher Education shouldn’t be seen as a chore, but an opportunity. The Teaching Awards offers the chance of valuation on a different scale, and one which I am happy to subscribe fully to. Impact can be measured in lots of ways, but the impact of teaching practises on people in the classroom is certainly one which deserves recognition and further thought.

Check out the full list of Winners and Runners Up here

Students and colleague Chloe Preedy (Penryn Campus) alongside myself and Richard representing the English Department across two campuses at the awards. Photo: Exeter Student’s Guild
Photo: Exeter Student’s Guild

Don Delillo: White Noise

I was attracted to read White Noise because of the central protagonist Jack Gladney’s academic profession. I am writing my next chapter on academic fiction and representations of humanities scholarship in media and therefore found “Hitler Studies” a most entertaining addition to my repertoire of English Professors (Morris Zapp included), Medieval Historians (Jim Dixon, of course) and Rembrant specialists (Howard Belsey, perfectly so). 

The novel however, achieves more than the status of most “campus novels” – it is a far wider net of critique that Delillo casts. The university is not the subject or central focus of the novel at all (frustratingly for my personal interest) but is a chilling and hilarious satire of american culture. Paranoia and consumption are the orders of the day in this book, and the university is seen as a place of escape and security away from the madness of modern life. 

Jack Gladney: ”Everything seemed to be in season, sprayed, burnished, bright. . . the jangle and skid of carts, the loudspeaker and the coffee-making machines, the cries of children. And over it all . . . a dull and unlocatable roar, as of some form of swarming life just outside the range of human apprehension.”

The New York Times are right in their assertion that Gladney’s voice is

one of the most ironic, intelligent, grimly funny voices yet to comment on life in present-day America”

In a “campus novel” reading list that has consisted mainly of two types of narrator, it is refreshing to spend time in Gladney’s world. He is not an observer of an insular departmental scandal, he is a participant in a national disaster. He is not a young, disillusioned young man – he does not doubt his professional choices and suffers from relatable mid-life crises. Gladney is an everyman. But he is clever. It is rare to find a representation of a scholar in the humanities who is not at a remove from life. Perhaps it is the context of Delillo’s story, of a society of alienation that allows Gladney to appeal to the reader. Perhaps scholars aren’t so unlike everyone else after all. 

The Secret History by Donna Tartt – an investigation into a novel about studying the humanities (and murder!)

Recently I read Tartt’s “The Secret History and was impressed by the handling of a bunch of pretentious teenagers studying Julian Morrow’s exclusive (and doubtless uppity) Greek Classics class. The Guardian well summarises the reasons that you should read this book right now, and so I will spend little time repeating the qualities of excellence that this novel clearly possesses. Read about them here instead. 

I came across these beautiful dreamcasts on Tumblr that capture the spirit of the novel

The book is most often read as a thriller, a suspense novel or perhaps as a modern bildungsroman, but I was interested in reading The Secret History as a campus novel that is not written by a teacher, but instead by a student. Unlike most student-led stories about universities, which document relationships, alcoholic beverages and social struggles (all of which are also in this book), The Secret History has students who are really interested in knowledge and teaching. This is surprisingly rare in books about universities, and the discussions about tragedy, love and beauty bring Classical ideas to life.

There are some great passing comments about the nature of the humanities and studying them – here are a few of my favourites:

“Hampden, in providing a well-rounded course of study in the Humanities, seeks not only to give students a rigorous background in the chosen field but insight into all the disciplines of Western art, civilization, and thought.”

“…in doing so, we hope to provide the individual not only with facts, but with the raw materials of wisdom.”

I believe that having a great diversity of teachers is harmful and confusing for a young mind, in the same way I believe that it is better to know one book intimately that a hundred superficially,” he said. “I know the modern world tends not to agree with me, but after all, Plato had only one teacher, and Alexander.”

The humanities professor: Julian is raised to the level of a God. Like Alexander, he is ideal. He is the archetypal teacher, placed on a pedestal of perfection throughout. However, he is a strange human being outside of the classroom. He ultimately abandons his students. 

“Upon meeting Julian Morrow, one has the impression that he is a man of extraordinary sympathy and warmth. But what you call his ‘Asiatic serenity’ is, I think, a mask for great coldness. The face one shows him he invariably reflects back at one, creating the illusion of warmth and depth when in fact he is brittle and shallow as a mirror.”


How to Give up / Quit Facebook – how to live in social oblivion and still be happy.

Today I have made a decision that I am no longer going to consider myself as an active participant or user of Facebook. Ironically, perhaps, I feel the need to share this on the internet but hope that the thinking I have done around this may be of some value to others. 

I spend a great deal of my day, as an academic, at my desk, online. I have for the past five years considered browsing Facebook as a part of this process. It has been a habit. It’s a destination for procrastination. It has made me feel connected, and it has been an escape from the sometimes isolating nature of a PhD. However, I have come to realise over the past few months that, for me, it is a bad habit, a boring source of procrastination, and a useless way of staying in touch with my dearest friends across the world. Instead of feeling connected to people, I believe that Facebook has made me feel increasingly lonely.

The thing is, I am not lonely. I am content with my life outside of the internet.  But this continual network of abstracted friends has a strange effect on my brain. The continual baggage of a thousand other people’s lives is a strain on me. It’s my fault: I am an overthinker. I imagine you can tell… Perhaps for some people the use of Social Media is fun, but I worry, I compare, I am frustrated, I judge myself. This is not a healthy or happy thing to do. 

But, giving up a habit is hard. Especially when nearly everyone you know is also involved in the habit you want to lose. As an academic-  I began this process with a research question – how does one go about giving up a  ubiquitous social media site?  There are a few options.

How to Quit

1) Cold Turkey – deactivate / just stop
2) Limit your time on Facebook – start at a few times a day, then once, then less and less time (I am down to five minutes a day on my computer, but browse like a brainless idiot on my phone for hours)
3) Limit the ways you access Facebook – i.e no more emails and no more phone notifications (This I have done – to little effect)

Like most people trying to quit a habit, I have several recurrent excuses to stop quitting entirely. These (in the order they frequently occur to me) are as follows:

How to Talk yourself out of Quitting

1) I might miss out on invitations to parties
2) I will lose friendships that I don’t want to lose
3) I will miss out on important things / salacious gossip
4) It’s weird not to have Facebook,  I don’t want to be weird
5) I don’t know what else to do when I am bored

These are valid concerns but one’s that I am assured by my non-Facebook friends that I will get over / survive. Some of my closest friends do not use Facebook and so that gives me hope that there is life beyond the like…

I’ve decided to make an opposite list, of the excuses / benefits for quitting instead. This is something that I haven’t done before, as I have always seen Facebook as the default option. So here goes:

Reasons I am going to stop using Facebook:

1) It is a royal waste of time

50% of Facebook’s users log on everyday. On average people spend 20 minutes of day on Facebook. If I am honest about it, I nearly always spend more time than that, due to my mobile devices. 

2) It does not make me happy

Check out this research by Italian scholars Fabio Sabatini and Francesco Sarracino for detailed research about ‘Online networks and subjective well being’ click here for academic article

3) I feel a pressure to share information about my successes, but it paints a half-picture of my life

It is all very well putting on a public performance, as culture insists, but how far are we taking tese ideas with social media? See Aaron Balick’s blog here for his interesting analysis of ‘false self’ in the tradition of D. W Winnicott and Jung’s ‘persona’. Getting good feelings from ‘likes’ is a weird kind of Pavlovian model of valuation.

4) Who cares about anyone else’s parties?

If I wasn’t invited or couldn’t be there – why do I need to see the pictures? 

5) I do not need to use social media to connect with my friends

I have email, I have a phone, texting, Skype, I even have paper! I have air and space and time. I have coffee bars, I have pubs. Communication will still occur. I currently keep in touch with friends in the US just fine despite not being on Facebook. Facebook makes ‘staying in touch’ seem easier, but how connected are you when you are simply liking a status? You cannot carry everyone with you always. It is exhausting. The people who matter will continue to be my friend regardless of continual updates.

6) I am drawn into conversations that I am not a part of, nor do I want to be

Facebook algorithms are complicated, but draw on the idea that the flashy and shoutier the message, the more attention it will get. See Elan Morgan (here) on the ‘Like’ algorithm. I find myself reading posts of people I don’t like because they are ranty, have a comment war, or are irritating. That is just bizarre. 

7) I spend time thinking about people I would not even talk to in real life

There are people I ‘stalk’ who I never really knew. You know, leftovers from a part-time job, school, a crazy gig. Why is this a good use of time? What kind of compulsion is that? If you translate the process to real life, its plain creepy. 

8) It interrupts my creativity and academic thinking and creates a web of endless distraction

When you see something online it leaves a trace, it lingers, you do not read and move on. Some days I feel my mind full of useless things. I am distracted from real-life, from the people that I love. This idea is seen mostly in parenting columns and books. The distracted generation is here – screen-led and absent. There have been some powerful comebacks to this problem – Gary Turk’s video: see ‘Look Up’ video here is one among many. Time Magazine offers a chilling read in ‘Wired for Distraction: Kids and Social Media’ of a continuous distractedness. 

9) I cannot communicate effectively on Facebook

I wouldn’t dream of sharing pain, worries or drama on Facebook. There are jokes that don’t come off right online. Nothing is private. You can’t see if someone is really happy or just pretending to be fine. Facebook is not who I am. See Forbes on Communication: here

10) I want to be happy in myself, and this does not come from comparison to others

This is a problem offline as well as online, but is accentuated by Facebook. But seeing friends on beautiful beaches whilst you are struggling to write and are bored and stressed is not conducive to happy feelings. People only share their best selves online, and therefore it is easy to create unrealistic images of other people’s lives. We all feel sad and frustrated sometimes, but social media offers no place for such behaviour. I want to be happy, and don’t need an unrealistic standard to match up to. 

I would love to hear about other people’s views and opinions – comment below or via the ‘get in touch’ button! 


Jeffrey Williams: The Rise of the Academic Novel – A graphic guide / map

This post features a diagram I made using ‘Inspiration 9’ to describe the ways in which Jeffrey Williams divides and subdivides the Campus Novel and the Academic Novel.
I read ‘ The Rise of the Academic Novel’ in American Literary History, Volume 24, Number 3, Fall 2012, pp. 561-589.
I like William’s thorough approach and it is going to be really helpful for my next chapter of my thesis, but I am a visual person and wanted to understand the many sub-categories and distinctions as best I can. I hope this is helpful for anyone else trying to get a grasp on the history of the campus novel, or rather the academic novel as this diagram heavily features.
Click and Open to Enlarge!

Text List, for future editing:

Novels about Universities
I.     Campus Novels about Student Life
Like a bildungsroman
A.   Adventures
In the early part of the century, there was a
vogue of campus novels, usually portraying students’ adventures,
lessons (in and out of class), and sports
1.   Owen Wister
a.   Philosophy 4 (1903)
b.   The Virginian (1902)
2.   F. Scott Fitzgerald
a.   This Side of Paradise (1920)
3.   Percy Mark
a.   The Plastic Age (1924)
4.   Thomas Wolfe
a.   Look Homeward, Angel (1929
B.   Mysteries
1.   Max Beerbohm
a.   Zuleika Dobson (1911)
2.   Donna Tartt
a.   The Secret History (1992)
II.   Academic novels about Academics Lives
A.   (British and) Insular
1.   Dorothy Sayers
a.   Gaudy Night (1935)
2.   C P Snow
a.   The Masters (1951)
3.   Trollope
a.   Barchester Towers (1857)
4.   Tom Sharpe
a.   Porterhouse Blue (1974)
B.   (1985) DeLillo’s WHITE NOISE
1.   Sex
a.   John Updike
(1)   Couples (1968)
(2)   Too Far To Go (1979)
b.   Lurie
(1)   The War between the Tates (1974)
2.   Melodramas about Culture Wars
a.   Mamet
(1)   Oleanna (1992)
b.   Roth
(1)   The Human Stain (2000)
c.    L’heureux
(1)   Handmaid of Desire (1996)
d.   Prose
(1)   Blue Angel (2000)
e.   Bernays
(1)   Professor Romeo (1989)
3.   Work-Life / Mid Life Crises
a.   Women
(1)   Lorrie Moore
(a)   Anagrams (1986)
(2)   Chang
(a)   All is Forgotten (2010)
(3)   Susanna Moore
(a)   In the Cut (1995)
b.   Men
(1)   Aster
(a)   Book of Illusions (2003)
(2)   Beattie
(a)   Another You (1995)
(3)   Russo
(a)   The Straight Man (1997)
(4)   Johnson
(a)   Name of the Word (2000)
(5)   O’Brien
(a)   Tomcat in Love (1998)
(6)   Chabon
(a)   Wonder Boys (1995)
(7)   Stone
(a)   Bay of Souls (2003)
4.   Technology/ Sci Fi
a.   Richards
(1)   Galatea 2.2 (1995)
b.   Lethem
(1)   As she climbed across the table( 1997)
c.    Everett
(1)   Glyph (1999)
d.   Gibson
(1)   Neuromancer (1984)
e.   Stephenson
(1)   The Big U (1984)
(2)   Anathem (2008)
5.   Wider Portraits of Society / Panoramic Books
a.   Smiley
(1)   Moo (1995)
b.   Smith
(1)   On Beauty (2005)
c.    Franzen
(1)   The Corrections (2001)
6.   Deprofessionalization
a.   James Hynes
(1)   Publish and Perish (1997)
(2)   The Lecturer’s Tale (2001)
(3)   Kings of Infinite Space (2004)
(4)   Next (2010)
b.   Lipsyte
(1)   The Ask (2010)
c.    McNally
(1)   After the Workshop (2010)
d.   Moore
(1)   In the Cut (1995)

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.

Christopher Frayling and the Future of Funding in the Arts

Firstly, an Apology…
Summer holidays and moving into my first home has left this blog neglected.
No more – new term enthusiasm has returned, and therefore this post is to catch up on those lost summer months. On that note…

The Brilliant Cultural Value Iniative:
I wrote this reporter style piece for the Cultural Value Iniative at the end of June. It is truly a great resource for keeping up to date on debates in cultural value and Eleonora Belfiore is a great editor of the site. You can also follow them on twitter at  @culturalvalue1My piece was in regard to a talk by Sir Christopher Frayling as part of the Grand Challenges project at the University of Exeter. In this I was the lead facilitator for a group of students looking at ‘State Funding and Policy in the Arts’. Frayling was the Keynote, whom having worked in the Arts Council for many years, as well as being the Rector at  the Royal College of Arts in London for many years before that had a wide experience of funding in the arts. You can view details of the event here.

My original article is online here, but I paste it below for convenience and archival purposes

“Targets are here to stay” 

Sir Professor Christopher Frayling was Chairman of the Arts Council England from 2005 to 2009. However, he is not only a purse-keeper, he began his long career as a lecturer in History at the University of Exeter, before being the Rector of the Royal College of Art for more than 15 years. Personally, he was a warm and articulate man, and I found his talk a refreshing break from the depressive lamentation of the death of the arts. In Frayling’s own words “you ain’t seen the worst of it yet” in terms of funding cuts. Nonetheless, Frayling’s assessment of the Regional Arts at least allows the potential for opportunistic (optimistic would be too strong at this moment in time!) progress, as I shall detail in this post.

I work for the Arts and Culture team at the University of Exeter, and had the pleasure of helping organize Frayling’s “Funding not Drowning: the crisis in Regional Arts funding”. The talk came out of a desire within my team to deliver a timely debate to the people of Exeter that would tackle some difficult questions facing arts organizations in a year when austerity measures continue into the foreseeable future. Exeter is a regional centre for art in the South West of England and has also suffered greatly in the past spate of cuts.  Frayling discussed how “the South West is probably the most diverse region in the national portfolio” for the Arts Council and therefore proves “a devil of a region to get a handle on” in terms of management of funds. The discussion was held in the Exeter Northcott Theatre that was (to the shock of many) not included in the Arts Council England’s National Portfolio for 2012 – 2015. Whilst the theatre was awarded £125,000 for three years from the Arts Council England South West and is supported by the University of Exeter, the topic of funding continues to hold high importance on the agenda within the Northcott walls.

On the night, the theatre was packed with Exeter’s creatively concerned and the array of questions after Frayling’s discussion revealed theatre directors, local councilors alongside scholars in cultural policy such as myself. Some difficult questions were raised, a few people left the auditorium in despair (or anger) and all in all the discussion was an honest and productive overview of the situation facing the regional arts in the future. I was lucky to have the opportunity to briefly interview Frayling before the event, and have included comments from both our conversation and his formal talk in the discussion below.

In a style that you might expect of someone who has worked in funding for years, Sir Frayling was full of statistics. Speaking about the differences between London and the regions, he challenged the out-in-the-sticks out-of-mind perception that people sometimes associate with regional arts funding. For example, while London enjoys funding for 118 touring companies based in the capital, 72% of the performances that these companies put on are in fact outside London. Similarly, whilst the Arts Council continues to offer London around 49% of its funding, local councils are equally responsible for the cuts to culture across the country. I was shocked to find out that the Arts Council has 359 million pounds annually to invest, while cumulatively the local governments have access to a non-statutory pot of 1.8 billion. Whilst these billions of pounds are shared across the counties and include the statutory provision of museums and libraries, it is nonetheless a lot of money potentially available for arts organizations. In reference to these facts Frayling urged the audience to “stop thinking about homegrown versus central” as the geography is not black and white and rather a more composite picture.

Frayling’s argument for funding of the arts is the “mixed economy approach” meaning funding coming from Arts Council, local government, earned income and private investment. He argues it is important to have an element of competition to “keep you on your toes”. Certainly, we can all agree that complacency is something that should be avoided, however continual economic checks and assessment can take a toll on a creative organization that is also trying to engage in artistic and social debates. In reference to the decisions Frayling made during his time as Chairman of the Arts Council, he was proud to say that arts institutions were judged and supported or cut appropriate to individual circumstances and attainment “it’s competitive, there are winners and losers”. This is a situation that he compared to the current financing of research councils in Higher Education Institutions. He commented that you wouldn’t automatically assume an AHRC or an ESPRC grant at a university: these are prestigious awards. Frayling argued “there is never going to be a situation where there is enough” but the future is not without hope for the innovative creative. Speaking from his experience of the RCA he celebrated how “in Art Schools people think that tomorrow has the potential to be better than today […] Universities are gloomy”. Whilst I take slight offense to the label of melancholia within my own institution, I can see how those who are seeking a career in creative arts must believe in their own talent as catalytic. Actors, artists, producers and dancers on the whole are driven by the love of their art and not money. Within these creative people is the potential for commercial success, but money is a means-to-an-end and not an end in itself. Frayling used a (albeit easy) successful metaphor for creativity needing to be nurtured like a plant. Admitting to the excessive examination of of economic viability Frayling observed “you pull a plant out of the pot every ten minutes to track its progress then you wonder why it wilts”.

Whilst the situation facing arts organizations in the South West doesn’t look to be getting any easier, finding private investment is no easy thing either. It’s all very well to accept that to get money from the Arts Council and the local government “targets are here to stay” but in the “mixed economy approach” that Frayling supports, there needs to be interest from private investment.  Throughout history art has not survived on the art – from Florentine bankers in the Renaissance to philanthropy in the Victorian era, art have “needed some sort of angel”. The only question left unanswered was who this was and “why isn’t it hip to fund the arts in Exeter?”

Note: All photos my own.


Gatsby, What Gatsby?

Slightly off topic from my usual blog posts, the below anti-film-review review comes from a recent visit to the Exeter Picturehouse. The University of Exeter has a great collaboration with this arty cinema in town, and runs a series of lectures for students, staff and members of the public before certain screenings. 
The film I was asked to critique for the blog was Luhrmann’s recent adaptation of The Great Gatsby. The process of adaptation was a key element in Dr Sinéad Moynihan’s introduction to the film, and a big debating point afterward. My post looks a different perspective to the film – the reaction of a Screen Talks audience member who had not read the book. 
You should check out the Screen Talk Blog (where this post originates from) here.

Gatsby, What Gatsby?

Before watching Luhrmann’s film, I knew nothing about The Great Gatsby. Despite the fact it is regarded as one of the strongest contenders for the “Great American Novel”, regardless of its status as being a frequent choice for curricular Literature Studies and adapted into four films prior to this most recent attempt – I have not read a page nor harboured any facts about the novel at all. Actually, that statement is not wholly correct. In all honesty, I knew it was an American novel (this I had deducted from the fact it was written by Fitzgerald) and I had presumed at some point of the story (probably of relative importance to the plot) there would be a character called Gatsby, who may or may not turn out to be great. These are the skills of deduction that a BA in English Literature provide you with when faced with the situation of predicting information about a text that you have not read.
When I encountered the trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s latest film for the first time, unsuspecting of the extreme sensory invasion, I was compelled to shut my eyes and ears off from the spectacle playing before me at the words “Gatsby, What Gatsby?”. Only thirty seconds into the extensive trailer, it was actress Cary Mulligan’s dainty inquiry that confirmed what I had already begun to guess: there’s a book adaptation movie coming.
My BA in English was prefaced by a childhood spent reading extensively; I have a comprehensive (albeit surface-level in places) understanding of most ultra-famous literary works. I have loved, and will continue to love reading “The Classics” of the literary canon. The feeling of sitting down with a book which has been valorised by generations of readers provides you with a sense of contentedness – a guarantee that the pages before you are set to be worthwhile and profound. This is a feeling, from my experience, that I have not found to be replicated in filmic adaptation of such texts. While Luhrmann’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet may be a success in the realm of cinema, it is unfaithful in conveying the original sentiments of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Certainly both book and film end with the star-crossed suicides of the titular characters, however, the route to this climax and the style in which is portrayed is entirely different. Shakespeare’s original cites parental pressures, the close knit Verona communities and the ignorance of an old apothecary while Luhrmann’s adaptation utilizes police helicopters, lad culture and Para-Ordnance P-13 pistols. I argue that the film adaptation is a different product entirely, and therefore my review of The Great Gatsby will not seek to draw comparisons to the text (which I have not and will not be reading in the near future). Instead I ask whether the film is good enough as a film.
I would like to clarify in reference to Romeo and Juliet above that I prefer a film adaptation that seeks to do something radical with a literary text than to tip-toe around trying to re-invent the same wheel. Isn’t it better to initiate something new, than imitate something already brilliant? For this reason I greatly admire Baz Luhrmann’s efforts in adaptation. His unique style accentuates what is of interest to his directorial tastes. In the trailer to the movie Luhrmann’s name is emblazoned in an Art Deco gilded gold frame. His authorial status is celebrated and is a major draw for the film. His name precedes the celebrity cast of actors. The fact that the film is adapted from a popular story is perhaps less significant than the gravitas of Luhrmann’s method of storytelling.
To briefly contextualize, it remains an undisputable fact that the majority of people like to watch literary adaptations. Since the Academy Awards began in 1927-8, ‘more than three fourths of the awards for “best picture” have gone to adaptations . . . [and that] the all-time box-office successes favour novels even more’ . Over the past year, some of the highest grossing box office sales in the United Kingdom were Les Miserables (January 2013), The Hobbit (December 2012 – January 2013) and Oz the Great and Powerful (March 2013) all adapted from novels. Since literary adaptations began there have been discussions of fidelity. Such conversations can be a little tiresome and repetitive – especially when you haven’t read the original, or think that the film version is less boring for the non-specialist reader (wading through 1500 pages of French-English translation of the 1862 writing of Victor Hugo is definitely a most arduous activity than the recent sing-a-long with Hugh Jackman and Amanda Seyfried). Wouldn’t it be fun to accept that the differences of medium limit the fidelity to the original text, but also offer new potentialities of storytelling?
Michael Klein and Gillian Parker posit an interesting suggestion that there are three kinds of adaptation:
“First, ‘fidelity to the main thrust of the narrative’; second, the approach which ‘retains the core of the structure of the narrative while significantly reinterpreting or, in some cases, deconstructing the source text’; and, third, regarding ‘the source merely as raw material, as simply the occasion for an original work’
I personally prefer the third option –the closer a director sticks to a text, the more frustrating the tiniest of neglects and nuanced differences become. Previously, I have not taken well to the cherished classics that I have read being adapted into blockbuster movies. I left the cinema halfway through the 2009 attempt at A Picture of Dorian Gray appalled at the sub-standard CGI and the weird temporal leap to WW1 in a story set in the Victorian era. As appealing as Colin Firth is in that white shirt, I still prefer Pride and Prejudice as Jane Austen penned it. So maybe, as Klein and Parker suggest, the classics are better off if they are allowed to become mere “raw materials” for the creative talent of the filmmaker. If you want to see a version utterly faithful to the original – why don’t you just read the book again?
The Great Gatsby (2013) was a visual treat. The actors and actresses looked superb in their 20s couture, and I will not be lead to believe that a written description of a lavish party could top Luhrmann’s filmic spectacle. Never have I seen a party more decadent on the big screen, nor could I imagine how it could be exceeded. The atmosphere of sheer extravagance and the imagination of Luhrmann is a match to the expectations of Gatsby in terms of brilliance. Luhrmann thrives on these energetic scenes, and whilst the dialogue and romances may appear a little unbelievable (and at times pathetic) throughout the film, there is little doubt in the authentic wonder of the lucky party-goers.
Luhrmann’s sense of speed and activity is successfully contrasted with the deaths of Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the car-crash victim Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher) whose deaths are among the most striking moments of the film. Taking a breath right at the moment when life is extinguished, the two characters that die in the novel (Gatsby and car-crash victim Myrtle Wilson) both meet their end in slow motion. Death, like the vibrancy of a party is equally difficult to capture within the literary text. To confirm my suspicions that it is easier to die on screen than in a novel, I skimmed through the end of novel to compare the death scenes: for Myrtle Wilson only: “the business was over” is recorded and for Gatsby: “the chauffeur heard the shots”. For both Myrtle and Gatsby there is no written record of the moment of death. In the film, there is a blow-by-blow detailing of the event. Talking to a friend who has read the book, after having seen the film, she commented that in the book the deaths don’t really seem to carry much significance – the true betrayal and tragedy of the story occurs before the death of Gatsby. However, in Luhrmann’s film it is certainly the finale. What interests me is not the comparing the film to the book, but to analyze Luhrmann’s persistent drive and obsession with the death of the star throughout his filmic career. Romeo and Juliet is perhaps a bad example, as from page one of the play and the opening of the film alike, you know that the stars are destined to “take their life”. However, in Moulin Rouge Satine’s (Nicole Kidman) death is unexpected in the carnivalesque madhouse that the rest of the film consists of. Her death comes at the final curtain and much like Gatsby is dramatic and cinematically stunning.
I want to emphasize that I am not naturally morbid – the death-scenes are just one example of why I enjoyed watching this film. But I have chosen them as my example as they are something that I expected Luhrmann to do well as Luhrmann, in no relation to whatever the original was like. I suppose I would prefer it is we compared like with like, a good film with a bad film (or another good film), a good directorial style and a bad one (or a bad director in a moment of brilliance). Judging a film by a book seems to me to be unfair and unproductive in the process of creative storytelling.

Scholar Gipsy : Matthew Arnold

I’ve been reading up on Matthew Arnold’s work as a school inspector, and came across some of his poetic works. Having only thought of Arnold as a cultural critic, I was surprised to find his poetry to be so highly regarded as well. Stefan Collini has praised Arnold as ranking amongst Browing and Tennyson as being “one of the three pinnacles of Victorian Verse” (Matthew Arnold: A Critical Portrait 2).  His poems centre mainly around reflective thought, doubts and intellect.

The following extract is Arnold’s most lucid poetic interpretation of Victorian Higher Education. From the towers of an Oxford University Arnold demonstrates a disregard for logic in favour of free spirited knowledge. The Scholar Gipsy (1853) is a poem that tells the story of a Scholar who leaves the Oxford and formal education to live out in the wild and learn instead from gypsies. The poem tells how the gypsies “had a traditional kind of learning among them, and could do wonders by the power of imagination, their fancy binding that of others.”

F.R Leavis has argued “what the poem actually offers is a charm of relaxation, a holiday from serious aims and exacting business. And what the Scholar-Gipsy symbolizes is Victorian poetry, vehicle (so often) of explicit intellectual and moral intentions, but unable to be in essence anything but relaxed, relaxing and anodyne” (100).

I am unsure whether Leavis has given enough credit to Arnold’s poem, which rather than being relaxing is melancholy and essentially disturbed. The Scholar Gipsy may have a pastoral and gentle wrapping, but is nonetheless a clear cut criticism of regimented learning.

You can read the poem in its entirety here
G Wilson Knight gives a typically New Critical reading of the poem on JSTOR here

I was most struck however with lines 201 – 210 which bitterly talks of modern life as “sick hurry” (204). 

O born in days when wits were fresh and clear,
  And life ran gaily as the sparkling Thames;
    Before this strange disease of modern life,
  With its sick hurry, its divided aims,
    Its heads o’ertax’d, its palsied hearts, was rife—
      Fly hence, our contact fear!
  Still fly, plunge deeper in the bowering wood!
    Averse, as Dido did with gesture stern
    From her false friend’s approach in Hades turn,
  Wave us away, and keep thy solitude.
The poem is set whole action of the poem is within sight of “Oxford’s towers,” therefore Arnold leaves little doubt that the narrator’s first-person plural refers to the scholarly community of the university. Arnold attended Balliol College at Oxford himself from 1841 – 1853, graduating with a 2nd Class Honours degree in “Greats.” The poem was published ten years after this date and perhaps reflects a mature retrospective view of the university. 

Here are some images of Oxford University relating to 1853.

University College, 1853 from the Highstreet. From the Oxford Almanack 

Edward Smith-Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby was the Chancellor of the University in 1853

Drawing, “George James Drummond’s Room at Oxford, 1853″ by George Pyne – depiction of an undergraduate room at Oxford College (probably Christ Church). A Partial view of another building can be seen in the rightmost window.

Arnold, Matthew, The Scholar Gipsy 
Collini, Stefan, Matthew Arnold: A Critical Portrait. Oxford; Clarendon. 1994. Print. 
Leavis, F. R., The Common Pursuit, cited in Harold Bloom (ed.) The Art of the Critic: Literary Theory and Criticism from the Greeks to the Present (New York: Chelsea House, 1985-1990) vol. 9, p. 100.