Impact and the REF: Educators for Reform 
Saturday, December 12, 2009, 10:11 AM
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Like most academics I don’t like the crude instrumentalism which has been creeping into Higher Education. Back in 2003 Charles Clarke famously dismissed subjects such as Medieval History as ‘ornamental’ and even said that he found the idea of education for its own sake ‘a bit dodgy’. And now academics are fighting the new proposals that ‘impact’ should play a major part in the 2013 REF. This has been much discussed elsewhere and Stefan Collini does a particularly good job of demolishing the proposals on grounds of logic as well as principle.

So I was quite interested to receive an email from a group called ‘Educators for Reform’ asking for my support, I assume because I had signed two separate petitions protesting against the new emphasis on ‘impact’. As teaching has finished, I took the time to read the statement they attached and emailed a response. There were parts of their manifesto that I went along with completely. I don’t think many academics would dispute this statement for example:

‘A desire to make the economy more productive has ... put into question the value of learning for its own sake.’

But I was less swayed by this one:

‘A wish to make society more equal has undermined the teaching of knowledge, fixed syllabuses and assessment by examinations.’

It somehow suggests that there's a kind of zero-sum game relationship between equality and good education. I’m not saying that there isn’t some grain of truth in the point made by Educators for Reform here, but I still don’t see why you can’t try to achieve both genuine excellence and equality.

They go on to claim that education should be about ‘Recognition of the benefits of competition, rigour and elitism’. In one way I was actually quite attracted to that slightly startling and provocative ‘elitism’. I was reminded of an exchange in Frasier:

Frasier: 'Niles, do you think I'm elitist?'
Niles: 'Of course I do - you needn't worry about that'.

However I'm not sure what it means in practice. For example, as someone who works in a post-92 university in a very research active department, I'm concerned about moves to focus funding in just a handful of research intensive institutions. There has also been talk of limiting the number of universities or departments which can take on PhD students. Such moves would encourage many of the most ambitious staff to move away from new universities and thus compromise the experience of the students who study in such departments, students who will typically be from state schools and come from families which haven’t had previous experience of HE. I am against any steps which will make the distinctions between HE’s tiers more fixed and rigid.

Since responding to their email I’ve found out a little more about ‘Educators for Reform’ at this blog.
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The Culture of Translation 
Wednesday, December 2, 2009, 01:44 PM
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I went to an excellent conference last weekend, The Culture of Translation in Early Modern England and France, 1500-1660, organised by Tania Demetriou and Rowan Tomlinson. Although all the papers I heard were very impressive I’ll just comment on one panel which particularly resonated with my own research.

The first paper was Paul White’s ‘From Commentary to Translation: Concepts of the Text’. The focus was Jodocus Badius Ascensius, a Renaissance scholar and printer. Paul White examined his use of various metaphors to describe the relationship between modern writers, commentators and translators and their earlier models. He quotes Badius’ fanciful conceit of Herodotus being ‘dressed in Roman toga and fine Latin’ by Lorenzo Valla and looking round in wonder and delight at his new surroundings, like the ‘reanimated Roman’ in Mary Shelley’s tale.

I found another image quoted from Badius equally suggestive. He compares the relationship between a text and its commentary to the relationship between capital and interest. It’s always difficult to tell which elements of a text’s reception have been ‘read out of’ the text - in other words they were at some level already there - and which have been ‘read into’ the text, and are thus new and unearned. The ‘interest’ analogy seems to capture that uncertainty very pleasingly (particularly as I am rather vague about economics.)

Conference organiser Tania Demetriou gave an extremely lucid and convincing paper, ‘”A Single Night’s Animal”: Translating Penelope from Epic to Drama’. Here she argued that Penelope’s celebrated ‘chastity’ is largely an accretion imposed on Homer’s text by his later translators and commentators, not because of any dramatic alterations to the text but simply through the words the later writers use to translate Homer’s epithets for Penelope. I found myself using Tania’s argument to illustrate a parallel point in a class on Paradise Lost the other day. It is very difficult now to recover the effect of reading the poem for the first time because so many of Milton’s innovations now seem canonical, even Biblical.

The final paper of the panel was Raphael Lyne’s ‘Cicero in Ben Jonson’s Catiline.’ 'I haven't been not to say right slap through him, very lately,' says Mr Wegg of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall in Our Mutual Friend – and that’s also true of me and Catiline. Nevertheless I very much enjoyed Raphael’s reflections on the function and effect of Jonson’s long near quotation from Cicero in the middle of the play, an interlude which doesn’t seem to have found favour with his first audiences. I also wondered whether there might be some metatheatrical significance within the extended quote. Some of Cicero’s original (though of course translated) lines perhaps acquire an extra edge when transplanted to a new context, and some of the changes also seemed to respond to the fact that this Cicero is speaking to Jacobeans as well as Romans.

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Sexism and Harry's Place 
Tuesday, November 24, 2009, 08:54 AM
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I spend more time than is probably quite healthy hanging out at Harry’s Place. I find the views of its bloggers often, if not absolutely always, congenial. One of the things which immediately struck me about this blog was its blokish atmosphere – and I’ve often been moved to grumble about sexism or misogyny on the comments.

I was recently invited to write a guest post – a slightly daunting prospect as HP is famous for its light touch moderation policy and the comments can get quite nasty. If anyone visits HP for the first time via my blog they may think I was given a hard time – but it can get much more vicious.

If it achieved nothing else, my guest spot did have the effect of getting Alexto take a look at HP – I keep on telling him he’d love it. He was a bit confused – ‘why is this man talking about his penis?’ - though, as a veteran of the standards wars he was completely unfazed by the critical comments!

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Reinventing the Renaissance Occult in Modern and Postmodern Culture 
Sunday, November 15, 2009, 05:07 PM
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This colloquium was the last in a series of events held at Anglia Ruskin University to mark the visit of our visiting Leverhulme Professor, György E. Szönyi. The aim of the day was to explore the different ways in which modern culture has returned to Renaissance esotericism. Some have been drawn to the intriguing remoteness of such teachings from our own more scientific and sceptical age. Others, by contrast, have sought to discover unexpected points of contact between the mysteries of the occult and more modern mysteries, such as quantum science. The lure of the occult today may partly be explained by a growing dissatisfaction with Enlightenment rationalism and its perceived failure to address fundamental human concerns.

The first session began with a substitute paper, ‘Shaping Fantasies’, which I offered because two speakers dropped out at a late stage. This was a version of a recently published article in which I analyse the way in which modern responses to Shakespeare’s magic such as Neil Gaiman’s Dream Country invest Shakespeare with the power of a vates, the ability to channel information from some higher plane – or bring that plane into being. Our second speaker was Ewan Fernie, whose paper, ‘The Possessed’ was a powerful meditation on the relationship between sexual surrender and divine, or demonic, possession. A particular focus of Ewan’s paper was the strange case of Daniel Paul Schreber who was obsessed by the idea of becoming a woman and achieving a sexual union with God. Then György E. Szönyi spoke on ‘New Age’ interpretations of the Book of Enoch. Unfortunately I was unable to hear this paper or Urszula Szulakowska’s ‘Art and the Esoteric Tradition in Australia’, although I know that both papers were extremely well received – and were followed by a lively and prolonged question and answer session. (I was involved in lunch preparations at the time and, when delegates failed to appear 40 minutes after this was due to begin, I began to fear that they had been translated to some astral plane ...)

After an excellent buffet supplied by Cotto we heard a fascinating paper by Sophia Wellbeloved on the influential and intriguing figure of G.I. Gurdjieff, a polymath who mixed with many famous figures associated with the Modernist movement, including Ezra Pound and Katherine Mansfield. Part of Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson is available to read online. Then Leo Ruickbie gave a very engaging account of the Faustian pact in magical culture, moving from the responses of Faust’s near contemporaries, to an account of an eighteenth-century man apparently saved at the last moment when on the brink of selling his soul to the devil, and concluding with some unexpectedly up to date examples. We heard of people attempting to sell their souls on eBay, and also of the curious case of S. Jason Black who claims to have reaped substantial benefits after making a pact with princes of Hell. (Afterwards Marina Warner drew a wholly convincing parallel between such magical pacts and Catholic indulgences – both equally the targets of Protestant disapproval.) Finally Monika Smialkowska introduced two extremely interesting modern responses to one of the best known magicians of the Renaissance, Prospero. Both David Calcutt’s Prospero’s Island and Elizabeth Nunez’ Prospero’s Daughter challenge, in different ways, our sense of the relationship between ‘science’ and ‘magic’.

The final panel of the day opened with Patricia MacCormack’s illuminating ‘Occultism and Continental Philosophy: From Solomon through Spare to Serres’. She explored the importance of the demonic for thinkers such as Deleuze and Guattari, the appeal of the idea of ‘possession’ to thinkers who are drawn to new assemblages which exclude the forces of the family, capitalism and the state. Mark Goodall then offered a suggestive series of ideas about what might constitute an ‘occult film studies’. A quotation he used, Paracelsus’ description of the occult as something ‘inaccessible to human reason’ reminded me of Kubrick’s description of 2001 as something which he wanted to ensure could never be fully susceptible to logical analysis. Finally my colleague Rowlie Wymer gave an entertaining account of James Blish’s ‘After Such Knowledge’ sequence, novels which problematise both barriers of genre (one is sf, one is a historical novel, and two are fantasy/horror/sf hybrids) and also the boundaries between different kinds of knowledge – science and religion seem like polar opposites but magic, with its emphasis on instrumentalism - and the possibility of concrete results – complicates this binary. Of the novels Rowlie discussed I had only read A Case of Conscience, but now feel tempted to read more of Blish’s ‘occult’ works.

Everyone was delighted that Marina Warner was able to accept our invitation to join in our colloquium and give a reading from her celebrated recent book, Phantasmagoria. She read from the final chapter of the book, in which she tracks traces of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelation to the recent shocking Abu Ghraib photographs which she describes as the ultimate example of phantasmagoria. This was a fitting conclusion to an extremely stimulating and lively conference which brought together scholars from several different disciplines.

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Heyer Questionnaire results - how you voted! 
Wednesday, November 11, 2009, 08:18 PM
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Apologies for an entry rather short on useful links – but with so many names involved I couldn’t do all of them!

45 questionnaires were collected in total – many thanks! Your careers include research editor, librarian, academic, actuary, teacher, psychotherapy, curator, civil service, tax inspector, scientist, marketing manager, architect, solicitor, financial services - and lots of students.

Nearly all of you began reading Heyer in your mid teens, although one precocious fan began when she was 9. I was a Heyer virgin until the ripe old age of about 22 I think. (I spent my teenage years reading Proust in a slightly passive aggressive way. )

It was fascinating to see what people put down as their favourite Heyers. Some people complained that being limited to three was mental cruelty. Other ignored the limit completely. The overall winner was Venetia with 12 votes. These Old Shades and Cotillion tied for second place with 10, and Devil’s Cub secured 9 votes, as did Frederica. Here are the other results – any novel which attracted more than one vote is followed by the appropriate number.

Powder and Patch; Masqueraders 2; Bath Tangle; Regency Buck 3; False Colours; Grand Sophy 7;Infamous Army 3; Nonesuch 4; Sylvester 4; Friday’s Child 7; Unknown Ajax 6; Tollgate; Convenient Marriage 4; Civil Contract 6; Arabella 7; April Lady; Lady of Quality 5; Reluctant Widow; Talisman Ring 2; Black Sheep 3; Corinthian 2; Blunt Instrument; Black Moth.

The ‘least favourite’ category threw up a few surprises from my point of view – why wouldn’t anyone like False Colours, Sprig Muslin or Frederica? But I endorse the overwhelming lack of enthusiasm for the queasily Gothic Cousin Kate which attracted 12 votes.

The other losers were Masqueraders 2; Bath Tangle 3; False Colours; Simon the Coldheart 3; Black Moth 4; Talisman Ring; April Lady 3; Charity Girl 3; Civil Contract 2; Royal Escape 2; Sprig Muslin 2; Lady of Quality 2; My lord John 4; Barren corn; Friday’s Child; Foundling; Frederica.

You liked other romantic novelists including Erica James, Jilly Cooper , Nora Roberts, Louise Allen, Mary Balogh, Mary Stewart, Stephanie Meyer, Jennifer Crusie, Eloisa James, Charlie Cochrane, Karen Rose, Louise Bagshawe, Philippa Gregory, Freya North, Eliz Herbert, Mary Renault, Winston Graham, Jean Plaidy, Angela Thirkell, Monica Dickens, Mills and Boon, Charlotte Lamb, Tracy Chevalier , Marian Keyes, Freya North, Dorothy Dunnett, Eva Ibbotson, Katie Fforde, Sybil Marshall, Jo Beverley, Clare Darcy, Juliet Blyth, Eva Ibbotson, Julie Quinn, MM Kaye, Amanda Quick, Jayne Castle, gay and lesbian romantic fiction – but quite a few of you, like me, don’t really read any romantic novelist other than Heyer.

Most liked literary fiction – I expect most people were thinking within a bit of a Heyer groove when they filled in this section – thus as well as many references to Jane Austen there was a strong preference for female novelists, including ‘middle brow’ classics from the mid twentieth century such as Mitford, Thirkell and Goudge as well as more recent writers such as Sarah Waters and A.S. Byatt. Other favourites included Fanny Burney, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Donna Tartt, Atwood, Du Maurier, Khaled Hoseini, Barbara Kingsolver, Jane Aiken Hodge, Shakespeare, Bronte, Patrick O Brian, Lessing, E Annie Proulx, Mavis Cheek, Dumas, Collins, Gaskell, Lermontov, Pushkin, Orwell, Zamyatin, T S Eliot, Frayn, Waugh, Barbara Pym, Jeannette Winterson, Forster, Nabokov, Woolf, Sebastian Faulks and Bret Easton Ellis (that was me in slightly contrary mode.)

Can I take this opportunity to recommend Dorothy Whipple by the way?

Quite a few Heyer fans also read sf, although there was a preference for comic fantasy rather than hard sf. However I did spot a couple of Heinlein fans and many readers of Le Guin. Other writers mentioned include Anne Mcaffrey, Pratchett, Tanith Lee, Robin Hobb, Katherine Kerr, Vonnegut, EE Smith, Arthur C Clarke, Elizabeth Moon, Joanna Russ, Samuel Delany, Naomi Norvik. Several people mentioned the wonderful Lois McMaster Bujold and if you are even vaguely interested in science fiction do give her a go.

Most of you like detective stories and favourite writers include CJ Sansome, Laura Childs, Dick Francis, Sarah Paretsky, Sue Grafton, Agatha Christie, Janet Evanovich, Falco, Lindsey Davis, Ellis Peters, Tey, Marsh, Sayers, Jasper Fforde, Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs, Boris Akunin, Dornford Yates, Sapper (that was me), PD James, Mark Billingham (also me), Carla Dunn, Rosemary Rowe, Edmund Crispin.

Horror proved less popular although people mentioned Barbara Michaels, Stephanie Meyer, and Peter V Brett. A couple of readers enjoyed more classic horror such as ‘Monk’ Lewis, Mrs Radcliffe and Poe.

Quite a few of you enjoy children’s books – ranging from older classics (Burnett, Nesbit, Streatfield and Montgomery) via mid c.20 favourites such as Rosemary Sutcliffe and Rumer Godden, to modern best sellers such as Pullman and Rowling. The most popular writer was Diana Wynne Jones, and quite right too! Other writers mentioned included Tolkien , Michelle Paver, Michelle Magorian, May Grant Bruce, Joan Aiken, Antonia Forest (I agree, must read her again) Brent Dyer, John Christopher (that was me) and Caroline Lawrence.

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