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Academics and morale

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.

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