18th Feb 2021. Watched a documentary on S4C this week, in Welsh, about two sisters who had grown estranged and were having therapy (“therapi”) to bring them closer. I don’t understand Welsh and there were no subtitles and I speculated how many other English viewers there were but it was interesting nonetheless. However, I wondered why one of them kept calling her sister Pam as her name appeared to be Llinos. As they confronted each other on a beach (they lived in Caernarvon) she kept saying, Pam, Pam Pam! I checked after it had ended; Pam in Welsh means Why?
- Feb 24
- 3 min read
Updated: Mar 1
12th Feb 2021. OK I don't work in an Art School any more. Nor a School of Arts and Humanities. But memories of academic attitudes float to the surface particularly during the present lockdown and challenge to the orthodoxies of teaching. It was Prof Quincy Adams Wagstaff of Huxley college in the US who summed up academic attitudes to change in his influential TED talk, Whatever It Is I’m Against It.
Groucho Marx seems remarkably cheerful despite summing up the prevailing ethos of many academics, and the older the prof the more his words ring true; ‘Your proposition may be good, but let’s have one thing understood. Whatever it is against it’.
The REF– A colossal waste of money–why don’t they just let us get on with it as we always have done? The TEF– Even worse; no evidence it measures teaching quality; a tick box, buzz phrase exercise where they hand out medals like a primary school sack race. And managers: don’t let us get started. Grey jobsworths who know the price of everything and the value of nothing, squeezing the joy out of overworked proud academics everywhere.
Ancient lecturers often look back to a golden age three decades ago, a technicolour arcadia resembling the cover of The War Cry. Students (a small number of them) sat neatly but industriously at the feet of wise lecturers, research was something you got on with (or not) without interference, and the lecture-seminar model of teaching stood untroubled by smartphones or the internet, as it always had done. A lapsed utopia defined by the overhead projector and upside down slides in the carousel.
David Watson in The Question of Morale 2009, analysed the paradox that whilst academics often expressed satisfaction with their own research and immediate projects, this was countered by profound dissatisfaction with university life in general, and managers who they felt undervalued, mismanaged, and misunderstood them. And this seemed as true in Australia and the US as in the UK.
One key reason seems to be the mindset of the arts and social sciences academic in particular: trained to be ‘hypercritical’ as Sharon Bell puts it, they shine the laser light of their forensic gaze on their own university, and find it wanting. It’s been said that this is also the reason why creative arts students in particular show less satisfaction according to the NSS than those in the sciences. We train them well to be critical of structures and ideas, the argument goes, so we can hardly complain when they are dismissive of us. But this doesn’t explain why some arts universities and programmes actually do well in the NSS –are they somehow less good at honing the critical faculties of their cohorts?
The solution? Most Deans and Heads accept that we don’t work for Google, and they encourage and work with the colleagues who do see the bigger picture, however flawed. One new VC whom I witnessed held his first (and last) mass meeting with his Professoriate to be faced with a tirade of complaints and hostility, about the state of the ‘Polytechnic’ (sic– this was 20 years after the institution had become a university). And most of all about car parking. For some academics, any shift will be for the worse, and they will publicly if not privately agree with Professor Wagstaff: ‘And even when you’ve changed it and condensed it. I’m against it’.
But a year into quarantine and the mass lecture/seminar model looks like it might be gone for good. Perhaps we're not so against it after all.
- Feb 24
- 3 min read
Updated: Mar 1
16th Feb 2021. Last week the Clermont-Ferrand short film festival announced the winner of the coveted International Film Award, for Sestre (Sisters) by the Slovenian writer-director Katerina Rešek (Kukla). Slovenia is a small nation of two million people, so this is a big deal for them. Only one in 100 films are selected for the international competition, and there are usually around 100 films selected, so to be the best in this festival, widely regarded itself as the best in the world for short films, is an even bigger deal.
I know all this because two years ago I was on the international competition jury. and I know a lot about Slovenia because I married a Slovene, and have a house there, and I eventually learnt the language, a lifetime struggle which I will deal with in another post.
It was fascinating being on a film festival jury on two counts.One is how well you are treated. Five-star hotels, champagne receptions, a special row of seats reserved for you at every screening, and at every international film presentation a photo of you and your fellow jurors precede the programme as the lights go down. Your head can be turned by all this. It's disturbingly quite easy to get used to it, even if I sometimes wondered why I had been invited. True, I had a film in the special section, (not the competition, I had applied before and never got in), a documentary on artificial languages I had made 25 years ago with Tony Steyger. One of the organizers had seen it at a French film festival when it came out, and thought it would fit in their languages theme.
But I was on the jury for international short fiction, not experimental or art film, where I might have been more at home. The star of the festival, Claire Denis, was ironically on the experimental jury, in the Labo competition. I wondered if I could ask her if we could swap. Also on my jury were mostly young film directors with a couple of highly regarded films under their respective belts. One, Nadav Lapid, went on to win The Golden Bear in Berlin the very week after Clermont-Ferrand. I considered whether to adopt the protective overcoat of Imposter syndrome, but decided against it. My fellow jurors were very friendly, I was having too good a time, and in any case seeing all these international films was absolutely fascinating. it struck me that there is a certain kind of film that strikes a chord with selectors at this and possibly other less mainstream festivals. A window on a closed world, in Mongolia, or Romania, or South America. Films with a social conscience; you can see why Ken Loach plays so well outside of the UK. Serious films for the most part; romantic comedies were decidedly thin on the ground, nor indeed were any laughs. Some were harrowing in fact; not the kind of films I would normally go to see for fun, but in that suspended state of a week where everyday was cinema, lunch, cinema, hotel, I started to love the experience. Most interesting was to see the British films that had been selected for the competition, and what light that shone on an outsider’s vision of the UK. Pretty bleak, and northern, and working-class seemed to be the picture, that year at least. It was interesting that the south of the country was hardly represented, apart from a quirky film about a south coast lido. No, gritty Manchester, or Liverpool, or (most harrowing of all) the shopping centre at Bootle Strand, in a dramatised documentary about the Jamie Bulger case. Is this because an international filmic UK is coloured by a Ken Loach filter, as an antidote to all those white linen suit films of Edwardian goings-on? Our own national Brexit filter shows a sun-dappled nostalgia past; see The Dig for example, the recent surprise hit on Netflix. But others don't see us that way. I haven't seen Kukla’s film, but it will be interesting to see what light it shines on present-day Slovenia. Good luck to her.