Category Archives: teaching

Sara Ahmed’s resignation from Goldsmith’s

I have been very moved by Sara Ahmed’s resignation from Goldsmith’s College, University of London, over its failure to deal adequately with sexual harassment: “I have resigned in protest against the failure to address the problem of sexual harassment. I have resigned because the costs of doing this work have been too high.” She has written about this here and here.

Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology

Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology

I don’t know Professor Ahmed personally, but I have found her work to be stimulating and tremendously helpful in my own thinking (I’ve been raving about her book Queer Phenomenology to anyone who will listen for quite a while now!). Having recently left a university, I know that it’s not easy to do, and I can’t imagine doing so would have been easy for her, even though the circumstances  of her leaving are very different to mine. She used her agency in the context she was in to chose to leave over the issue of sexual harassment at her institution, understanding this as a feminist act.

Goldsmith’s, like all modern institutions, prides itself on its equality and diversity policies (Goldsmith’s, like so many, devotes a page on their website to this topic), but as Ahmed points out, these policies mean little if the problem of sexual harassment is allowed to continue; I also know this from being a trade union case worker. The “performativity of saying diversity” is something my sister-in-law, Eike Marten, has written about in the German context (her book on this topic is being published by Routledge later this year), and the singular failure of institutions to adequately address these topics despite a string of Athena Swan and other awards is something that Ahmed’s actions have highlighted. Identifying mechanisms to address this problem is the next step, particularly in the light of the increasing number of cases beginning to appear in the mainstream (academic) press, and in my view this is what makes Ahmed’s resignation at this time so important.

Universities tend to protect famous (almost always) older male scholars from the consequences of their sexual harassment of (almost always) younger female scholars. I know this personally: right in the middle of my undergraduate finals, I was a witness in a university procedure against a senior professor who had sexually harassed me and many other undergraduates – men and women – over a protracted period of time (and yes, choosing a date for the hearing in the middle of the exam period was, I think, deliberate on the part of the university). The whole thing was largely covered up, and the professor in question continued his work in academia and the church; unfortunately, a recent FOI request I made to Aberdeen University resulted in no documents being found on this topic, and as he is still alive and active in his field, I probably shouldn’t name him publicly even now, for fear of litigation. That happened in 1990, but Ahmed’s resignation a quarter of a century later clearly indicates nothing much has changed in UK academia.

It’s high time it did.

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Statement

Over the last months there has been considerable interest in what is happening to the Religion programme at Stirling University.  Earlier today I tweeted a photograph from my third year undergraduate class – and since then I have received a substantial number of queries about the current situation.

The following statement is the extent of the comment I can make on this matter:

Dr Tim Fitzgerald and Dr Michael Marten will be leaving the University at the end of December 2015. Dr Andrew Hass and Dr Alison Jasper will continue to contribute, with colleagues, to the delivery of programmes in Religion.
This statement has been agreed by all parties.

Please note that comments on this blog posting are closed.

Understanding Islamic State? A conversation with David Pratt

Last week I had a Twitter conversation with David Pratt, the foreign editor of Scotland’s premier newspapers, The Herald and Sunday Herald, and I then wrote a short blog posting about this on another blog I use.

Some of the themes and issues I address here will be of interest in reflecting on how we think about groups like Islamic State and others. In particular, students engaging with questions of categories and identity questions might find this interaction and my subsequent reflections helpful.

The xenophobia at the heart of the UK affects everything, including our university system

Today I read a rather brilliant article about the American justice system by Albert Burneko: The American Justice System Is Not Broken.  Along the same lines, I would argue that neither, of course, is our immigration system in the UK broken, even though some claim it is: yes, it discriminates on the basis of race, but that is entirely deliberate. Xenophobia is an integral part of the system.  All the major Westminster parties are racist in this way: the Conservative and Liberal Democrat government, and the opposition Labour party (see, for example, this interesting comment from the Spectator, which I, of course, read differently to the way they do!). The parties’ pandering to UKIP probably makes this worse, but we should be clear that none of the parties can legitimately use that as an excuse: they all espoused, and when in government operated, racist policies long before UKIP was in any way a significant force.

Xenophobia and racism, of course, permeate our society, as does discrimination on the basis of class, gender, disability, age and so on. Our political parties reflect that, but they also create it: this is a dialectical relationship, as the parties escalate their racism in order to (as they see it) appeal to more voters, who are presumed to be racists too (incidentally, realising this is what the parties think of us, the voters, leads to interesting thoughts… but that’s for another time, maybe!).

I see this all the time in the context of our country’s university system, and thought it might be interesting to give some examples and consequences. After all, especially at postgraduate level, our universities attract students from around the world, and some of our most able students are those who have gone to great lengths and endured enormous financial and emotional pressures to study here: often they are away from their families and friends for years at a time, with relatively little money, in a strange environment (and therefore with few, if any, support networks, at least to begin with) – and yet often they still produce brilliant work.  I don’t wish to devalue the achievements of UK students, but to produce excellent research under such circumstances does require additional effort and personal resolve.  EU students have it hard compared to UK students (language, unfamiliar context etc.), but non-EU students face even more hurdles – at least EU students have the right to come here and study without visa complications.

That is where, for non-EU students, the xenophobia and racism that permeates our society becomes immediately apparent.  Most non-EU students come here under the Tier 4 visa system, and universities generally have the right to enable students to come here under that scheme.  But if not, the process is complex.  It is also costly: £310 plus £310 for each dependant (so if you are careless enough to have a partner and children before studying and are unreasonable enough to want them to come with you, that gets very expensive!).

Now, let’s presume you have stumped up the money for the visa. Next you have to pay the university fees. This is the first time we see the racism that our political parties espouse in their policies reflected beyond the government.  I don’t think most people realise this, but fees for students in the EU and outwith the EU are different.  For example, if you want to do a PhD with me (yes, please do enquire!), my university charges the following at the moment (and some universities charge more):

EU students (incl. UK)
Non-EU students Mode of study
£3,996 £12,000 Full time
£1,998 £6,000 Part time

Oh, and if you’re here on a Tier 4 visa, you can’t do your PhD part-time, so forget the £6,000 option.  Of course, being a full-time student means you might struggle, for example, to do a part-time job on a supermarket checkout to help pay for your fees and living costs, especially if English is not your first language and you need all the hours in the day to read and understand complex source material or theoretical texts for your research. That’s just tough: be rich, or struggle (see how neatly class is intertwined with the racism here?).

If you need to leave the UK, perhaps for research fieldwork, or to visit your family, getting back into the UK is not necessarily straightforward.  An American PhD student of mine was stopped at Heathrow and nearly not allowed back into the UK, despite having the appropriate student visa – this is just ‘simple’ xenophobia! The immigration official at first pretended not to believe she was returning to study, with the conversation at one stage moving to comments on how pretty she was, and that she was surely just trying to get back into the UK to marry a boyfriend and stay here (all this in the fevered imagination of the border agency person – there was no boyfriend, and she was coming back to meet her supervisors and carry on her study).  That conversation could have been very different had she not been white and not been from the USA, and I know of other students who have been harassed and delayed at airports despite having the right student visa.  If they already have the right visa, they should be allowed straight through the airport immigration checks, rather than face arbitrary harassment.

Let’s presume that you complete your studies on time and graduate – congratulations, that’s a great achievement, and you, your family, and your supervisors should all be incredibly proud! Now, let’s presume that you didn’t just spend your time in a library, but maybe met a local and fell in love! That’s wonderful, and then, maybe with a year or two still to go on your student visa, you get married – congratulations again, that’s lovely, and everyone will be very happy for the two of you and wish you well for your married life together.  That is how it should be.  Unless, of course, you happen to be in the situation of one of our students a couple of years ago: as I recall it, her new husband had a daughter from a previous relationship and lived near to her and the child’s mother so he could see his daughter regularly.  He had sustained some kind of injury at work, and could now only work part-time, thereby automatically lowering his annual salary.  Despite this, the newly-married couple had more than enough money for their needs, and lived quite happily together – until she graduated and her visa ran out.  The UK government pretends to value families (the odious Iain Duncan Smith has recently even introduced a ‘family test’ for new laws), but the reality is that they don’t care about families unless they are wealthy (again, this is where class and xenophobia are linked). Our former student could only stay with her husband if between them they had a certain level of household income, otherwise she had to leave.  No amount of protestation about his situation and the lack of job opportunities for her in a difficult economic climate made any difference: she eventually had to return to America.  Her husband then had a choice to make: did he move to America with his wife (which he could do automatically, being married to an American citizen: their laws appear to be less inhuman in this regard), or did he stay in Scotland so that he could see his young daughter regularly? It’s an impossible decision to make. So much for our government pretending to support families.

But let’s forget about that crazy little thing called love, and presume you just want to stay in the country and work here, having made friends, felt welcomed by the people around you, and are happy in the town you are in.  You might struggle to get an appropriate academic job (it is extremely difficult: “only 19 per cent of UK PhD holders were in higher education research roles three and a half years after getting their doctorate”), but you might be in perfectly decent work, even if it doesn’t pay you that much. High pay, such as academics get, is not necessarily what all want – it’s very nice, certainly, but security, purpose and so on are rewarding for many, and a lot of jobs offer that.  But doing something like this is basically impossible.  Oh yes, the government will pretend it isn’t, but I have seen post-PhD students from non-EU countries try to secure employment with an income level that will satisfy the requirements of the UK government, and in most circumstances it simply can’t be done (unless you’re on a very narrow list of desired professions), especially not for people with humanities backgrounds.

There are exceptions, of course, where certain kinds of visas exist that allow work to be done by specialists without regard to income levels, but it requires a level of commitment from institutions like universities that, understaffed as most administrative departments are, is an incredible stretch.  Too often, there is too much expected of such people, and as they seek to ensure they do things properly, urgency and deadlines slip, and what seems like a perfectly simple thing to do is made more complex to the point where the human objective – helping someone stay in the country who can offer something helpful and useful to our society and where they might be happy – is lost.  Overstretched people often end up having to do things that effectively dehumanise situations, and this is neither their fault nor their moral failing.  Rather, it is that the whole immigration system is so deliberately complex and the penalties for institutions that fail to observe them so severe, that folk are terrified of failing to comply (the London Metropolitan University crisis from 2012 is etched into the mind of every university recruitment and personnel director in the country, I’m sure).

Our government’s policies are constructed in such a way that we don’t see the xenophobia and racism in our institutions unless we actually look for it, but all of our public life is infected by this it. The examples I have given point in part to the process whereby xenophobia and racism is embedded in our institutions – it’s not that people who work in our institutions are xenophobic or racist (well, some might be, but I’m arguing they are not necessarily so and I would never presume they are unless I had evidence to the contrary). People in our institutions have to come to decisions that reflect the principles laid down by the government – and these principles are the problem, reflecting values and positions the parties think we, the voters, want them to embody. We urgently need to disabuse our politicians of these views and find a way to exercise real control over our parties and government in order to address these problems.  Every election offers that opportunity, and I encourage support for parties that explicitly don’t pursue racism and xenophobia but seek to undo the damage the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour parties have done to our public life (I think this basically means the Scottish or English and Welsh Greens, the Scottish Socialists, the Scottish Nationalists, and Plaid Cymru… any more?).

Industrial action – information for students

As many of you will be aware, the academics’ union, UCU, is in dispute with the employers over the proposed wrecking (in my view) of the USS pension scheme that we are part of, and which is run by the employers and the union.  Our local branch of the UCU here at Stirling is participating in the dispute.

The dispute has dragged on for a while, and the employers are refusing to negotiate seriously over these issues.  More details can be found on the UCU Defend USS website.  Most immediately there is to be a marking boycott beginning on Thursday 6. November 2014.  This is likely to affect you in various ways in many of your courses, and I would urge you to read my union’s briefing written for students.

Academics do not take industrial action that impacts negatively upon students lightly, and indeed a marking boycott may seem like a terrible inconvenience to you.  However, I would urge you to support your lecturers across the university who are participating in the boycott – they are fighting for rights that will eventually (once you leave university) also affect you.  Furthermore, facing the loss of substantial sums of money (in all likelihood thousands of pounds a year upon retirement) is a hindrance for recruiting and keeping engaged and enthusiastic academics: the likelihood of good staff leaving Stirling University increases if pensions become worse and worse, as they will seek employment at institutions with better provision.  Most of us don’t do this for the money (the majority of staff don’t earn quite that much!), but the pension provision hitherto has been pretty good for most staff.  We are fighting for that to be maintained, and I hope that all the staff participating in the boycott can look forward to your support.

Additions: 6.11.14

These further items that may be of interest…

There is an eloquent explanation of why UCU is pursuing this action on J.P.E. Harper-Scott’s blog (although it includes reference to the English fees system that is less relevant here in Scotland).

The National Union of Students has produced a briefing that you can find here.

The UCU has produced a suggested letter for staff to students that I reproduce below, with the relevant email for our University Principal added:

Dear student,

As you will know, due to industrial action starting this Thursday, November 6, your lecturers will not be setting or marking any assessed work or examinations until the dispute with university employers over staff pensions is resolved. I will be carrying out all other duties as normal – teaching classes, giving lectures, seminars, practical classes, supervisions – so your teaching will not be affected.

I understand that you will be concerned about the impact this is likely to have on your studies and that’s why I’m writing to explain what is happening and why.

Lecturers have decided to take this action because of proposed changes to the university pension scheme, USS, which will mean significantly reduced benefits, in some cases as much as £12,000 a year. We are angry that the employers are seeking to end pension schemes that were signed up to in good faith by staff, so our trade union, the University and College Union (UCU) held a ballot to decide what to do. 80% of those who voted were in favour of taking action and there is clear support across pre-1992 universities for the boycott.

This is not a decision I have taken lightly and the last thing lecturers want is to damage your education, but unfortunately we are now left with no other option but to take this stand to protect our right to a fair and decent pension. This action is also about being able to attract and retain the best staff but if the proposed changes go ahead, staff in post-92 universities will have much more favourable pension schemes and many of the best lecturers may well be attracted to work there instead.

The cuts to our pensions are unfair but they are also unnecessary. The projections of a deficit are strongly contested by UCU’s financial experts who advise that the scheme is actually in very good financial health. Since 2011 the pension fund’s investments have grown by £8bn and the returns on these investments have outperformed average earnings and inflation.

Lecturers and support staff all want to avoid disruption to your education and our union, UCU, is trying to negotiate with the university employers to ensure a fair pension but the quickest way to end this dispute is for the pension scheme managers and the employers to sit down and negotiate, rather than just imposing their own proposals unilaterally.

I’m asking for your support in this action. We believe that if student bodies throughout the country make their opinions known to vice-chancellors, there is a good chance that the employers will moderate their position. Please email Prof. Gerry McCormac (University Principal) calling on him to press the national negotiators to produce a fair and sustainable proposal.

Students: this is how to REALLY annoy your lecturers!

Lecturers try, they honestly do.  To make life easier for students, I mean, whilst still ensuring students do the work required to understand the subject.  And yet sometimes, questions are asked that are so irritating, that it makes us want to scream.

If you’re a lecturer, you’ll recognise some or all of these, I’m sure (add more in the comments if you like!).  If you’re a student, then please, don’t ask these things: university management causes us quite enough stress without you adding to it by asking questions like these…

When is the essay due?

All the information about the essay is in the course handbook.

How long should the essay be?

Look in the course handbook…

What referencing system should I be using?

Grrr… have you thought of looking in the course handbook?

Where should I hand the essay in?

LOOK IN THE ******* COURSE HANDBOOK!!!! (ok, so I never swear at students, but sometimes, honestly…)

I don’t have a copy of the course handbook.

You can download it from the course website (On a good day I won’t even ask how you got halfway through my course without a course handbook).

What should I read for my essay?

What have you read so far?

Err… I was hoping you’d tell me what to read.

The book chapter you asked us to read isn’t about the topic.

What makes you say that?  She’s a world-renowned scholar on precisely this topic and her book is all about this…

The chapter title doesn’t mention the topic.

That article you made us read for next week’s class – is there a summary of what he says online somewhere?

Err, no…

It’s just that, well, you know, it’s quite complicated…

(As I stifle the urge to bang my head against the wall).

I am doing next week’s seminar presentation on this topic.  Where can I find more reading?

The library…?

Where’s the library?

(Unbelievable it may be, but I have been asked this by a second year student – I did go and look at his university record after this, and it was evident by his grades in various courses that he really had not found the library…)

You say this happened, but I read an article in the newspaper last week that said it wasn’t like that at all.

What newspaper was this?

The Daily Mail.

[I laugh:] That’s not a newspaper…

Can I cite the Daily Mail in my essay?

Only if you wash afterwards.

Eh…?

[Not really a question, but I don’t need to hear this one again.
I was giving a lecture from 14:00-15:00.  A student stumbled in at 14:30 and muttered:
]

Sorry I’m late, I had a rough night last night.

I’ve realised the seminar presentation I signed up for at the beginning of the semester, well, I can’t do it next week as it’s my new boyfriend’s birthday the day before.  Can I switch to the following week?

No.

I won’t be at the lecture next Tuesday because my girlfriend is visiting me for a few days.  Can I come and see you in your office hours the following week and you can run through the lecture with me again?

No.

But I want to write the essay question on that topic.

Good, and the answer is still ‘no’…

There’s too much reading on your course, so I’ve decided to switch to History.

Err… well, good luck with that! (I’m hoping very much that the first year history course has to read the entire works of Eric Hobsbawm – oh, and I’m feeling immense pity for whoever convenes the first year history course!)

[Monday morning conversation:]

When do we get our essays back?

When I’ve marked them...

But the due date was Friday, and so I just thought…

… what, that I don’t have a weekend?!

I could go on.  I have been asked all of these questions in the past – and this is simply a random sample of the more memorable ones.  I assure you I would quite happily go through life never being asked them again…