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The Pequod
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

Reflections on English: Shared Futures 2017

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

In the Civic Centre in Newcastle, where English Shared Futures was based, there's an enormous model of the city. It's a utopian panorama of planning: logical lines of highways, smooth boxes of buildings, aspirational glass structures rising at the centre. At the level of the streets there is no traffic, no litter, no congested crowds. It's an adaptable analogy for this enormous, 600-delegate, 100-panel strong conference surveying the field of English literature, language and creative writing.

On the ground of our universities, life feels tough. We are mired in a traffic jam of overwork, while the radio plays a shock jock conspiracy theory about REF and TEF, the employability of arts and humanities graduates, and the returns on their tuition fees. Underlying it all is a permanent anxiety about the value of being paid to read books (if you're lucky enough to be a permanent academic), and the literal value of your next pay cheque (if you're one of the precariat).

English Shared Futures was a chance to rise above this day-to-day existence, and to take a panoramic overview of the discipline as a whole. From this perspective, the virtues of what we do are clearer; while there were certainly panels diagnosing the challenges facing early career scholars or the difficulties of convincing government of the virtues of English, the overwhelming feeling of the conference was one of celebration and confidence.

English Shared Futures made me reflect that although we may grumble when we're required to justify the value of our research and to show how the established discipline of English engages with the brave new digital and economic world around us, we've actually adapted very well to this new landscape - at least if the panels I went to (which were only a fraction of what was on offer, and admittedly skewed towards digital humanities stuff) were anything to go by. Among other things I discovered:

Our discipline goes under the label of English and has its origins in a nineteenth-century vision of the virtues of literature as a civilising force. But just as a city evolves beyond the planner's capacity to contain or model it, so in 2017 'English' has developed along all sorts of unexpected routes, absorbing other fields and disciplinary territories along the way. We do some remarkable and diverse things, and we continue to contribute to the society that houses and pays for us. 

Huge thanks to all the organisers, helpers, speakers and coffee-break conversationalists for helping me - and judging by twitter many others as well - to recover this more utopian perspective.

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Posted by Alistair at 6:50 pm Post your comments (0)

Higher Education is a Market (Except When it Isn't)

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

This morning the Institute for Fiscal Studies launched a report looking at the impact of higher university tuition fees. The headline was that students will graduate with more than £50 000 debt, but the Director of the IFS, Paul Johnson, also tweeted out the following 'highlight':

Note that when Johnson say 'increased subsidies' he doesn't necessarily mean subsidies from government in a direct sense, since costs for many degrees are covered solely by tuition fees, which may be paid by the government in the first instance but then in an ideal world are repaid with interest.

There's something perverse going on here. This is a market think-tank concerned about the fact that one group of disciplines in higher education - which remember we're continually told is a marketplace with student-consumers shopping for degrees - has found a way to deliver one product (arts and humanities) at low cost and high profit margins, to consumers who want to buy them. And government has contrived a system whereby the profits from these cheap-to-deliver subjects can be creamed off by institutions to subsidize the more expensive and allegedly beneficial STEM ones. Cheers, arts undergrads.

Some churlish folk might complain that this canny system depends on duping the student-consumer. Since arts graduates are likely to earn less than their counterparts in vocational subjects, they get a double whammy: they spend money that pays for their science counterparts, while they receive a less high return as they enter typically less well paid jobs (to be fair to the IFS they have a valid complaint that the taxpayer will therefore end up 'subsidising' them when they write off their loans later down the line).

But hey, from an institutional point of view this too is a positive thing, since (to use a ball park example without the figures to hand; feel free to supply) if arts and humanities students cost half as much to educate but are not half as badly paid once employed, there's an argument that the return on investment - again from the university perspective - from educating that particular student is reasonable. A cheap-to-educate student at least gets some employability bonus, even if not as much as the very-expensive-to-educate student.

And of course we as a society also need doctors and engineers. If universities can educate arts and humanities undergraduates, to support the expensive medical, engineering etc. degrees, all the better.

Of course, none of these arguments really seem quite to satisfy, do they? They are attempts to justify the structurally unjustifiable. Which is precisely my point. When a free market think tank complains that the system is broken because it's working too much like a market for the institutional supermarkets it is almost as if - call me crazy - Higher Education should not be treated as a market at all in the first place.

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