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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


Postgraduate Diary: The Idea of a University

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Listening to Martha Kearney's excellent mini-series The Idea of a University, I hear the steady tread of modernising and economically-minded feet marching towards my ivory tower. Her series covers the rise of the polytechnic universities following Harold Wilson's "white heat of technology" speech in 1963, in which he warned that the new sciences promised to leave behind those industries with outdated practices and methods. With their musty jackets, academics in traditional universities might have provided one example of the latter, and the polytechnics were the antidote to their staid culture, with their emphasis on vocational courses that could deliver cutting-edge teaching and research and disseminate it into industry through students who would go directly into relevant, and often local, workplaces.

"Relevance" is a dread word for me. A year in to my research, and I have come up with the vital 50-word answer when, at parties, I am asked what my thesis is about. The idea of my stock response is that it be simple enough to be understood without patronising, and elevated enough so that the person to whom I am speaking is not tempted to engage in a long dialogue about it. I socialise to escape research, not to discuss it. But the question I dislike most, and one to which I do not have a definitive answer, is: "Why is my research relevant?"

Last year, my university paid me £15,000 to study, and for the coming two years the AHRC are going to donate some £30,000 to me in the form of living allowances and tuition fees. In some ways, the provision of this money answers the question, or at least redirects it: if my research wasn't relevant, then the higher bodies in education would not have sent down their nuggets of gold from the heavens. Nevertheless, higher education can be accused (and it has been in The Idea of a University) of being a self-fulfilling loop, in which traditional university scholarship is felt to be worthwhile because the people at the top in government, themselves products of that system, feel it to have been of value to them. I have to bear in mind, therefore, that ultimately the money that pays for my research (and my beer and petrol and cameras) comes from outside this loop, from the taxpayer, and the question of value asked by the typical taxpayer I meet at my parties is one I have a responsibility to answer.

The word "value" has a double-meaning. In the first sense, which the OED gives as "That amount of some commodity, medium of exchange, etc., which is considered to be an equivalent for something else," the value of my PhD is not too difficult to estimate. With just 4% of PhDs in Arts and Humanities unemployed after completing their thesis, I will be more likely to obtain a skilled role as part of the UK workforce than I would have been had I joined the ranks of my peers who left as BAs, many of whom are still either unemployed (around 7%) or doing menial work behind bars and in garden centres. In the findings of the document "What do PhDs Do?" commissioned by the UK Grad programme, "In a modern knowledge-based economy, highly educated and skilled people - knowledge workers - are in great demand. PhD graduates are, arguably, the most highly skilled and educated people in our society." According to some figures, salaries reflect this, with PhDs earning up to a third more than those with only first degrees. So, over the course of the next fifty years in employment, I can expect to repay the investment made in me several times over.

Nevertheless, in the immediate term of the coming few years, it is the second meaning of the word "value" - "The relative status of a thing, or the estimate in which it is held, according to its real or supposed worth, usefulness, or importance" - to which I need to respond. Harold Wilson may have wanted universities to drive the UK economy forward through the white heat of technology, and there is no doubt that in the science sector the universities have been powerhouses of research and development. I heard a talk the other day from a former university lecturer whose spin-off company developing imaging crystals is now worth some £15 million, with contracts from the European Space Agency and potential worldwide markets opening in airport security systems. This, from a relatively small initial investment, as the university already had the infrastructure in place to pursue new lines of interest with ease: an international research community, the freedom to innovate, laboratories and, yes, a pool of eager doctoral students able to contribute their skills much more cheaply than could similar workers in industry.

But the "white heat" quite literally generated in the chemistry labs is hardly something I experience at my desk. In the words of a famous Punch cartoon, "Sometimes I sits and thinks, and then again I just sits" in, on good days, a smoulder of good ideas and words. In Education and the University: A Sketch for an English School, F.R. Leavis may have placed the English department at the centre of university life, but his heyday is long gone. When asked by Kearney about the changes in higher education that have taken place over the last thirty years, Mary Warnock, in her considered tones, lamented the passing of the idea that one could do research simply for the joyful sake of it. She did not, however, say why this ever was a valid argument, and the idea of ars gratia artis (art for the sake of art) no longer satisfies even me; it certainly, therefore, would not be expected to satisfy most taxpayers or Blairite politicians. If Warnock - one of our most respected philosophers - failed to come up with a response, I cannot be expected to do so either, at least not in the brief space of this blog. For the time being, I will have to satisfy my party interrogators with the financial statements of my "value" to UK Plc. Answering the other part of the "value" issue is something I must, however, work on.

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Posted by Alistair at 8:45 am

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