Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Ask a Silly Question

I've an article in the current issue of the Times Higher Education, which is published today - in print and online.

The piece is basically the text of an email I sent to UEA - a university I stopped working at almost ten years ago. They had written saying they were including a book I co-edited over thirteen years ago in the research portfolio they were submitting as part of a current research assessment exercise. All they needed from me was info about our sales figures - so that they could measure the book's quality and impact.

I wasn't best pleased, really. This email-turned-feature was the result...!


The piece is getting *lots* of good, supportive feedback on Twitter and Facebook. Many of the responses come from academics and writers in higher education who feel as browbeaten by the stupid bureaucratic pissing contests as I did.  Many say that they *wish* they could write and talk about it like i do in the piece, and my email to UEA, but would fear for their jobs if they did...

The favourite bit people are quoting seems to be:

'I don’t think that’s where that book’s success is to be found. Or any book’s. Not in sales. Nor in distinction by prizes or third-hand repute or by any of the measures imposed by, on the one hand, your shitty middlebrow literary culture or, the other, your titting assessment exercises."

 A Facebook friend-of-friend was reminded of a Samuel Johnson quote - which delighted me:

"The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it: till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it."

I must point out to everyone, though, that my original email reply to UEA was directed not at an admin person - but at a faculty member: an academic member of staff and a writer. That's who wrote to me, a salaried academic, complicit in this REF machine, asking me - a freelance writer - to do their research for them. Research on myself, for free, for them. 

Hence my ire. 

Meanwhile - @timeshighered tweeted: 

"Magnificent", "cathartic", "air-punching reading" You seem to like @PaulMagrs response to a REF impact request."


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I very much admire your Times Higher piece, as you know from my tweets. A friend of mine, James McNelis, read it and sent me this reinforcement to your stirring comments: "Is not a Patron, My Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a Man struggling for Life in the water and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help. The notice which you have been pleased to take of my Labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it, till I am solitary and cannot impart it, till I am known, and do not want it." --Johnson to Chesterfield

  3. I almost studied under you at UEA in 2001 (offered a place, didn't get the grades, went to Bretton Hall instead). I've always felt like I missed out.

    But this article has softened the blow slightly. I wanted to learn to write. I never wanted to be part of one of those institutions.

    Incidentally, when Bretton Hall was absorbed by Leeds Uni, creative writing (along with dance, drama, music, etc.) became part of the "School of Performance and Cultural Industries".

    Anyway, I bought the Creative Writing Coursebook - it definitely enlarged my heart and encouraged me to write. Thank you (and Julia, and all the contributors). Although since very little of that writing has been published, I'm afraid that impact is academically irrelevant.

    1. Nick - sorry not to have met and worked with you! But Bretton hall sounds like it was the right place - and thank goodness they attached themselves to performance and culture. When Creative Writing gets in with English Studies it can be the kiss of death. I will write more about that in future, i think.

      Anyhow - thanks for kind words - and keep on writing!

  4. I too own a copy of the Creative Writing Coursebook, and it is awesome.

    As a former admin person (now academic-related) I would have been delighted to receive your response, as I thought the various assessment exercises were utterly flawed, in their means of collecting and classifying the data collected. I also think that the REF and RAE undermine and devalue teaching by placing so much emphasis on research. Research is important, but it ain't gonna happen in the future if they don't teach the next generation of researchers.

    Tolkien once said that trying to analyse beauty was like like cutting open a ball to find the source of its bounce.

    My favourite bit of your piece was this:

    It’s intangible. It’s impossible. It’s about the imagination and magic and the things you read in books. It’s about time spent reading and writing books. It’s about subjectivity.

    Yes! Yes!

    A few years ago, the government wanted to quantify the "importance" of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty by "grading" them. I found this an appalling idea. One cannot quantify beauty.