Friday, 21 December 2018

PhD Supervision by Instagram

I’ve blogged quite a bit on here about using social media in my teaching – YikYak for anonymous questions when it was still a thing; and making a complete balls-up shaming my class on Twitter. But I don’t actually use social media much in my teaching. My Facebook profile is a very private place, so it’s quite locked down (I generally avoid being Facebook friends with colleagues). I use Twitter to get stuff out to students, but I don’t expect them to rely on it. It is completely unethical to expect students to use a commercial service external to the University for their learning.

One social media I’ve only got into using over the past year is Instagram. My use of it changed quite a lot when they started Instagram stories. I don’t use them very much, but on most days I’ll post something banal to my story. I quite like catching up with the stories of the people I follow too. It’s fun watching what people are up to and I occasionally chat to them. And as the everyday functions of Instagram have grown I find I use the messaging function quite a bit. I can have simultaneous conversations with the same person on Instagram, WhatsApp and email about different topics.

One of the people I follow on Instagram is one of my PhD students. I started following her after she suggested she might use Instagram to collect data for her fieldwork. I’ve followed PhD students on Twitter before, but most of the interactions there had been quite banal and work-like – just congratulating them on achievements and that sort of stuff. Like most doctoral supervisors I talk to, I find it is the most rewarding part of my job – I learn so much from my students and watching them flourish as scholars and rounded-individuals just gives me the greatest pleasure. Part of this is building up a trusting relationship, but I’m always wary to keep it professional. I don’t feel I should be the researcher’s friend, particularly when I’m in that supervisory relationship. We never know how a PhD is going to go, and I don’t want to be the friend who has to have an awkward conversation with a researcher telling them exactly what they’re doing wrong and that they have to buck-up their ideas and work harder if they’re going to finish this PhD.

Pretty early when Instagram stories started, I realised that following my PhD student was going to blur this line between a professional and a personal relationship. I was seeing everything that my student was up to across their life in a way I had not done before. It did dawn on me to stop following them, or just skip through their story. But I did them interesting – she’s a fun person with a rich life, and also seeing how she fitted the PhD into her life was interesting. I would respond to her stories and we’d message each other in the way friends day (we’re both gay, so this was common ground). However, that I was blurring the professional and personal did dwell in my mind and a few months ago I did say that their might be a point in future where I might politely end the supervisory relationship if mixing the personal and professional was getting difficult. I’d become friends, in a way, over Instagram stories.

But recently things have changed again with our supervisory relationship and Instagram. It all began when the student had a block on submitting a journal article that was just about written. I’m currently doing a coaching course, so I suggested we have a coaching conversation to work out what was going on and get her in a place to submit the article to her chosen journal. The conversation worked a treat and we set some pretty tight deadlines. And then it appeared on her Instagram story! I felt so pleased that she had got there that I had to engage with it positively – it’s what I would do as a coach and a friend. She didn’t quite make the deadline, but the paper was submitted and we celebrated through her Instagram story together.

She then went for a period of travel away through her research. And our Instagram story engagement, to me, took another little turn into a deeper relationship. Being away from our home and comforts pushes us into uncomfortable areas and we end up doing a lot of things that are socially brave, but doing so also brings out all the anxieties that hold us all back. I knew this as I’d done it a year before. So just occasionally I’d check in with her through the Instagram story, showing empathy, but also celebrating the many successes that have happened during this trip.

And I realised I’m sort of supervising by Instagram. What makes me a good supervisor, I think, is that I build a good, trusting relationship with my students. I support them to achieve what they want to achieve. And I’ve now just moved this onto Instagram stories. Hopefully it won’t all go horribly wrong…

Friday, 9 November 2018

The three per cent

It’s beginning to look an awful lot like three per cent of population are lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Governments are now beginning to ask standardised clunky questions to capture sexual identity in population surveys – this is a case where Scottish exceptionalism is true, as the then Scottish Executive pioneered this with the Scottish Health Survey in 200#. As the number of surveys that include such a question spread, the finding ends up being that around three per cent of people say they are not solely heterosexual. Reassuringly, an analysis of Google search data (looking at what porn people search for) finds that around three per cent of people are solely homosexual, with another two per cent on top of that “curious” (of course I can’t find the link to that article now).

There are all sorts of well-rehearsed issues with this statistic, many of which boil down the basic issue of what are we actually measuring? We’re conflating identity, attraction and sexual behaviour into a category on a form. You don’t have to be a queer activist to quickly become uncomfortable with that – the data on sexual behaviour from NATSAL should be enough to get you questioning simple categorisations. But I very much fall into the camp (pun intended) that those categories of “gay”, “lesbian” and “bisexual” or “pansexual” are empowering. In a heteronormative world they allow you to label your difference and be with others that are similarly different. So, in a patriarchal, heteronormative culture like the UK three per cent of people will call themselves not-heterosexual; they will have sexual and romantic relationships with people of the same gender as themselves.

I’ve ended up thinking about the three per cent quite a bit recently. It’s been lurking in the back of my mind and keeps popping-up unexpectedly. This is mainly because when we consider the position of a structurally marginalised group in society, the focus tends to end up on representativeness. We are now, rightly, called-out for creating, or taking part in manels; the utterly shocking lack of ethnic diversity in many areas of public life is highlighted as an example of the outcome of structural racism; the disabling effects of our society are reflected in the marginalisation of disabled people in major institutions.

Representation is also said to matter because of the visibility of the group. Non-members of a group continue to have negative views of group members because they do not see them in everyday life in positive roles. Similarly, group members might not think that opportunities are open or appropriate for them as they do not see people like themselves in such roles. Achieving levels of representation when groups are quite large is difficult, but obvious – in a world where over half the population are women, manels are just inexcusable. But, what about when it’s three per cent?

Only gay in the village

I wonder about this in terms of my own life. I grew up in the homophobic 1990s. About the only stat on non-heterosexuals that was muttered then was the Kinsey one-in-ten. This statistic has now been roundly debunked.

I sort of came out as gay at secondary school when I was 15. I felt very, very alone. I did wonder where all the other gay men were. I was the only gay in the village. Now I know that in my school of 1,000 pupils, there were probably another 14 gay men. Probably another three in my year group. If I’d know that at the time, would it have made me feel any better about myself? What if I knew these other gay men and I didn’t like them?

When I went to university and started dating the feeling of being alone didn’t really go away – if anything it got worse. A lot of this was entirely down to how I was feeling about myself. But I can’t help but think what I would have thought about the 3% stat then. There weren’t many out gay people in my college – definitely not 3% – but ironically enough of my peers have come out since we graduated that I now realise there were more than 3% of us. Even in a very large university like the one I attended, 3% is not very many people.

From what data we have there are also a couple of other things I can’t help but consider. Firstly, in the UK, non-straight people are evenly distributed across the country. Us gays, and particularly gay men, have a tendency to congregate in London and the south-east. We’re better educated and less likely to be unemployed than heterosexuals, so we go there to get better paid jobs. This means, if you’re living in a small, northern town, the chances are there’ll be slightly less than that 3%. Alas, it also looks like they’ll be a “selected sample” who are different to those super-gays in That London. How would that make you feel if you were in one of those places?

We also know that there is a generational divide. Younger people are more likely to identify as non-heterosexual than older people; obviously this is linked to the declining significance of homophobia in society. Indeed, a colleague recently told me how her 11-year-old daughter is being pressured at school to identify as bi/pan – what a refreshing change from the homophobic bullying so many of us older people experienced! It’s great that young people have this openness to explore, but as I explained to my colleague, I’ll be intrigued how many people who have had sex with people of the same sex do end up settling on an identity as “not-heterosexual”.


The other issue with the three per cent I think needs to be discussed among the LGBT+ community is over-representation – where do LGB people make up more than three per cent of a group and is this ok? This came to my mind during the period that of the five political parties who had representatives in the Scottish Parliament, three out of the six leaders (or convenors) were openly LGB. This was celebrated, and incredibly rightly so. Even a decade ago, a politician would remain closeted for fear of the reputational damage it may do, so that we had so many openly LGB leaders was absolutely fantastic.

However, I think questions need to asked about this level of over-representation. Not necessarily to challenge, and end in a conclusion of “this is wrong”, but to understand what drives it, do we need to ask what barriers heterosexual people (particularly women) might face in getting to similar positions of power and responsibility. I would also be interested if this over-representation existed at other levels as well in terms of political-party staffers and other roles (I suspect it does). The question then might be what attracts LGB people to such roles?

If we accept, from political theory, that we need groups engaged in political processes to ensure policy reflects their needs and views, then perhaps we do need to question that it is good that LGB people are over-represented in particular roles? As with any example of over-representation, this also means that LGB people are under-represented elsewhere. 

Thursday, 25 October 2018

What do we know about LGBT+ homelessness

Not a lot, is the answer. We know a little bit more thanks to a project I’ve been leading on that finished last year and that is now being published in academic journals. You can read my blog posts about the project as it ran on here – it led me to quite a discovery of my own sexual identity.

Anyway, the first paper from the project is now out in the International Journal of Housing Policy and, if I say so myself, it has an ABSOLUTELY CRACKING title: Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer experiences of homelessness and identity: insecurity and home(o)normativity. Of course, this means it will never be cited, but hey-ho.

Blogging about your paper is supposed to increase its citations, although with my “Pink Pound in the Gaybourhood” paper it helped it garner one citation after three years. So, here is my blog summary of the paper.

In writing-up this project, I’m drawing on my positionality as a public policy and housing scholar who has recently branched out into research issues around sexual and gender identity. The mainstream literature in public policy and housing is staggeringly silent on issues of sexual and gender identity. Through this research I discovered the rich work in disciplines like human geography (queer geographies); sociology and cultural studies. In writing up the research I therefore wanted to do an activist project into public policy and housing research by bringing the lives of non-heterosexuals, and how we understand them from varying theoretical perspectives, into heteronormative/heterosexist disciplines. It’s, therefore, reasonably good public policy scholarship, and pretty shoddy queer studies scholarship, but it is trying to bring the literatures together.

In the case of homelessness among LGBT+ populations the literature is, let’s say, difficult. There’s some dated stuff that comes from an era of less socially liberal attitudes that suggests that it is caused by family rejection. But even a quite old study by Prendergast questions this simplicity. There’s also the “pop” social science of things like the “a quarter of all young homeless people are LGBT” which I rail against for their lack of evidential basis. I also get annoyed at that stat, and it’s presentation, because of the simplistic way in which it is assumed sexual or gender identity is a variable in homeless; i.e. it is a direct cause.

There’s also US and North American research. However, this is of limited applicability. Firstly, a lot of it is written from a public health/social work perspective so it is mainly focused on the risks of harm to health caused by rough sleeping, rather than detailed exposition of causes, experiences and routes out of homelessness. Secondly, the situation in the UK regarding homelessness and rough sleeping, although bad, is no way near as horrific as it is in the US. Particularly in Scotland, a lot of the people captured by US research would have a right to housing which would reduce their risks.
In terms of the homelessness literature, I was pointed towards the work of Carol McNaughton-Nicholls. She used the concepts of “edgework” and “thin rationality” to explore the agency of the participants in her research on homelessness in Glasgow. Thin rationality especially, really resonated through our data – how these LGBT people had to make difficult decisions at points of their housing pathways that resulted in them experiencing homelessness and then experiencing a feeling of being-at-home.

And I use the term being-at-home on purpose here (it’s not in the paper, but this is the argument we make). This is because, what we actually uncovered was not that sexual or gender identity was a direct cause of homelessness – indeed many of our participants would have experienced homelessness whatever their sexual or gender identity – but that sexual and gender identity was wrapped up in experiences of homelessness in complex ways. Importantly, it seemed that for our participants, being-at-home (as opposed to just being housed) was associated with a deeper sense of security in their own identity as queer people. This meant that being-at-home could be felt at stages of their housing pathway where, in legal terms, they would technically be homeless or at least inappropriately housed.

Thus the paper begins to “queer” the homelessness/housed binary to the extent that I have a fun opening conversation gambit now of “I don’t actually think homelessness exists”. This is a theoretical route I want to explore further – Dr Lindsey McCarthy’s recent paper in Housing Studies was interesting in this regard. I am reassured that two recent pieces of doctoral research on the topic of LGBT+ homelessness by Carin Tunaker who was at Kent, and Philip Mullen at Newcastle, found similar results. And I cannot thank both of them enough for their time in sending me stuff to read and talking to me about their research (which is a lot better than mine!).

This finding also led me to my policy recommendations – which are that homelessness service providers need to be less reticent about opening-up conversations with young people about their sexual and gender identity. I was quite shocked about how worried people were about doing this; yes straight people, it is difficult to talk about your sexuality, but us gays have to do it all the bloody time, thanks, because we live in a heteronormative world. Anyway, it is only by opening-up such conversations that the complexities can be understood. I would add, that in my opinion based on this research, that it is mainstream services that should be doing this for two reasons. Firstly, practically because arithmetically, in a country as small as Scotland, with a population group that is three per cent of the whole population, it is going to be difficult to deliver specialist services for LGBT+ across a wide area. Secondly, and normatively, be because mainstream homelessness services should be welcoming, supportive and tailored to all people, no matter who they are.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Is public administration and public policy education in Scotland threatened?

I recently learnt from a colleague that the Master of Public Administration programme at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh is threatened with closure. This leaves Scotland with one MPA and three postgraduate programmes in public policy. Therefore the closure of this programme brings into question the entire existence of public administration as a scholarly subject in our country. Yet in practice public administration is booming – there is more that we need skilled public servants to deliver: the Scottish Parliament is gaining more powers; Scottish communities are being asked to take a greater role in the design and delivery of public services; and the demand on our public services has never been greater. Yet many public service organisations, such as community councils, charities and local authorities do not have (individually) the budgets to support Masters level professional development.

In other parts of the UK public administration scholarship is seen as vital to the economy and to civic society and so is financially supported by Government’s, For example, the Northern Ireland Executive fund civil servants to complete the first level of the MPA at Ulster University; the Welsh Government have funded an ‘All Wales Public Services Graduate Programme‘ with University of South Wales and the Welsh Centre for Public Policy at Cardiff University; and in England there are major developments taking place at many universities including Manchester Metropolitan University, Northumbria University, Nottingham Trent University, University of Birmingham and University of Exeter.

Scotland risks being perceived in this context as being hostile to public administration research and teaching. This runs counter to the ambitions of the Christie Commission, to the ethos of our Scottish Government and to the nature of the Scottish Approach to public services. Yet currently we face the very real prospect that public administration and public policy scholarship becomes restricted to the rest of the UK. We can only hope that our elected representatives will take notice and act soon before this becomes the case.

Friday, 11 May 2018

My Big Idea by Peter Matthews aged 35-and-three-quarters

I’ve been in marking hell since the end of the period of strike action which I’ve just emerged from. I can’t read anything without correcting the grammar.

Anyway, during the strike, among all the amazing USS Strikes Tweets I saw one from the Times Higher about research that had shown that European universities spend more on getting European Research Council funding than they receive in grants awarded. This led to the usual moaning about the ridiculousness of the situation, and also the suggestion that grants should be replaced by a research basic income.

This got me thinking more about an idea I’ve had which I’ve discussed with a few people now and I now have time to tell the entire world about…
To start with, why do we have research grants? Basically they emerged (as I understand it) as there was an awareness that some research required levels of investment in people and infrastructure that were beyond the capacity of all but the largest universities. Over time, in the UK, as the other elements of state funding to universities have been reduced, they now have to account for the vast amount of research funding for universities. There are two problems (I see) with replacing grants with a fixed sum to each researcher. Firstly, is the ability to fund large-scale research particularly that which requires investment in non-staff capital resources. Secondly, it adds an odd perverse incentive for universities to just keep appointing staff even though they might struggle to cover the rest of their salary with teaching income, as you know you’ll get some money for the post.

This leaves us with a distributional problem – the pot of money to distribute for grants must always be limited. As a result complex mechanisms of measuring the quality of proposals to target funding at those which academic peers believe will be most important, have grown over time. At the same time demand for research income has grown as more researchers want to do more research; as the funding landscape for HEIs has changed; and as pressure is put on staff through HEI’s expansive strategies to bid for more funding. As a result, success rates for UK research council grants are now hovering around the 10% mark.

There are obvious massive sunk costs here. I’ve heard quite a number of people who have had “outstanding” scores across the board on research proposals which have not been funded because there’s just not enough money. The system also has massive in-built biases. At the most basic level, grants beget grants – as this recent paper shows. More problematic are the massive gender and race biases in who gets funded – what Deb Verhoeven hilariously calls the “Daversity” problem.

So, what’s my big idea? A lottery. Or actually something a bit like Premium Bonds.

How it would work is when a research-active member of staff joined a UK university you would be given a unique identifier – your research premium bond number. Every year there would be a draw for “winners”. If your number was called out you would then get £1 million to spend on research over the next few years. Within six months you would have to submit a short proposal as to what you will spend the money on. You would have to report every year on your progress and at the end of five years you would have to return any unused funds.

You could spend the money as you can spend research council grants now – employ staff, buy-out your own time, buy equipment, and share it between institutions. So, if you didn’t win, but your colleague who you had been working with on a research idea did win, you could work together using their winnings.

The advantages of a lottery for me are:

You remove most of the sunk costs in unsuccessful bids. There would be a shifting of resources to actually supporting good quality research to be developed and go ahead, and good reporting so the outcomes can be adequately captured and disseminated.

I think you would actually get a lot more innovative research funded. I imagine there’s researchers in UK HEIs who never have the time to even think about what they might do with £1 million of research money, but if they got it would probably do something really quite exciting. You would probably end up with a lovely mix of utter blue-skies, ivory-tower research and some really applied stuff from all kinds of disciplines.

It would reduce the inherent biases in a system of quality-assessed research applications. I don’t know what the research councils’ annual budget is – I’m guessing billions – divided by a million will mean enough prizes that all researchers would be equally likely to win. Also, institutions, and academic disciplines, would be equally likely to win, no matter what their level of research infrastructure.

Given the above, I reckon everyone would win at least once in their career and have a chance to do some amazing research. You might even win twice. It would be up to the random number generator.

You might say that people might just waste the money. This would be a small risk I reckon. I think the need to submit a research proposal and annual updates would negate this. Some of the current sunk costs in developing and assessing applications would have to be shifted to post-award audit. I also think if you were not a very good researcher you would also have trouble spending £1 million over five years and you would end up giving a lot of it back. Also, I don’t think you can say that our current system ensures that poor quality research doesn’t get funded – it just has well written research proposals to support it.

I think there would have to be a residual pot for the absolutely massive research projects (the big STEM infrastructure investments; humanities investments in new collections; social science longitudinal surveys etc.) and you would need a competitive funding system for that, but it would be a small part of the overall budget.

So, that’s my big idea. UKRI – hit me up.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

What it means to be on strike

Members of UCU are embarking on a substantial period of strike action with some universities over proposed cuts to our pensions. Oddly enough, as a union member at a participating branch, I’m not on strike as it is our reading week, so we start next week.

As a union member and activist, I’m not actually that left wing – I hold some views that a socialist would wince at. But one thing I do hold as very important is strike action and solidarity with strike action. This is partly because there’s a long history of trade union activism in my family. So I know the number one rule is, even if you disagree with a strike, you do not cross a picket line. It’s about solidarity.

It’s also because as a lefty, I recognise that the only right we have as wage-slaves, is the right to withdraw our labour. In the history of the labour movement, all striking workers made the bargain that they will lose out less than the boss – that the loss in wages will be less than the loss of profits to the boss. This is especially effective when everyone engages in this level of disruption. The equivalent in a public service is to cause as much disruption to service provision that bosses pay attention.

One thing that especially angers me when academics go on strike is how bad we are it. I notice this particularly among academics who profess to be “radical” and then spend the strike action tweeting about how much reading and writing they’re doing.

So here goes my outline of what it means to be on strike:

Academic reading while on strike means you are doing academic labour, have crossed a picket line and are a strike breaker.

Academic writing on strike means you are doing academic labour, have crossed a picket line and are a strike breaker.

Preparing that grant application on strike means you are doing academic labour, have crossed a picket line and are a strike breaker.

Ploughing through your inbox to clear it while on strike means you are doing academic labour, have crossed a picket line and are a strike breaker.

Preparing slides for a talk while on strike means you are doing academic labour, have crossed a picket line and are a strike breaker.

Preparing teaching while on strike means you are doing academic labour, have crossed a picket line and are a strike breaker.

The sole point of strike action is to cause disruption, not just to leave the campus ghostly empty while you work from home. Come on, if you had the chance, you’d work from home anyway.

Now the argument against these, particularly around reading and writing, I hear is that “it will damage my career”. This really smacks of the over-individualisation of academic labour that we really should be railing against in our union activism. Let’s get this straight – YOUR career success benefits YOUR employer. If you get a Chair through writing a paper during the strike period, then that’s because you’ve met the performance targets set by your employer, which benefit it in terms of REF submission and prestige, so the VC gets paid more. If you write that successful grant application, then it brings in income to your employer, and your Pro-VC research gets a nice bonus at the end of the year.

The detriment to your career is the sacrifice you are making in solidarity with your fellow workers to the collective benefit to us all. And let’s consider what that sacrifice might look like. In a former job we had a period of rolling strikes about terms and conditions. A colleague at the time worked part time and the strikes were always on days they were supposed to be at work. They basically didn’t get paid for a month. They had a young child, a mortgage, and their partner worked part time. They really struggled. But they gritted their teeth and did not cross the picket line. They did this because their father was a miner who was on strike for a year during the miner’s strike. That’s what sacrifice for solidarity looks like.

So, please, before you even think of doing any academic labour during the strike, think of solidarity with your fellow workers. We need this dispute to be successful. The cuts to pensions are truly staggering. We need to cause as much disruption as possible. Don’t be a strike breaker. Don’t cross a picket, even working at home.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Issues with The Conversation

This morning I was reading a piece on the website The Conversation. As I got to the bottom, I noticed a bar asking for donations to fund “fact-based journalism”. I was a little taken aback by this, as I’ll explain why, so I tweeted about it.

I was struck that it really hit a nerve with a lot of my fellow academics.

For those of you who don’t know, The Conversation is a website, funded by a large number of universities and higher education organisations, to publicise academic research. When you write for it, you work with an editor to get the angle right. When you input your text into the website it has an “intelligibility” gizmo that has to be “amber” so your piece is readable. The also commission pieces; and if your institution is a partner then they come around to do communications training.

I have written for The Conversation in the past – Bulldoze Belgravia and another piece on urban design. This was in the early days of the site when what it seemed to be aiming for was academic input into current affairs issues (what do we actually know about this issue?) and also for academic takes on other societal issues – what I produced.

What I wrote was ideological – it comes from my belief that state action should maximise equality between people. From that belief I then set out a fairly straightforward, logical critique of mixed communities policies that seek to diversify tenure in deprived neighbourhoods – that they’ll never work because we need to consider tenure diversification in all neighbourhoods. It’s a fairly simple argument in urban studies you could work out yourself with some coloured tiles. The ideological tinge of the argument got me vilified below the line when The Guardian reblogged the piece and a reader referred to me as an “envy-driven” and “masquerading as an academic”. I was quite proud.

However, I now wouldn’t write for The Conversation, and I’ll explain why.


This is what got me about the “fact-checking” ask. Far too often I have read things in The Conversation that are factually wrong. This is a wider ethical issue for me, which academics need to be more reflexive on. As a social scientist, I know “objectivity” is a problematic concept, and I can give you a cracking post-structuralist denunciation of “the truth” if I want to, but in my opinion, in the public domain, academics have a duty to be absolutely clear on whether what they say is their ideological opinion, or is based on their research.

To give an example. Prior to my doctoral research, I thought that the state was generally a Good Thing, and if not necessarily Good, it was at least democratic and reasonably neutral. It should be criticised when it gets things wrong; but with this ideological position I would have said I was in favour of nationalising a lot of services that were previously own by the state, such as the railways. During my research career, I’ve realised that the state can actually be really bloody awful at delivering services, can be grossly undemocratic, and other ownership models, such as community ownership and cooperatives, can deliver the aims of social justice and a pluralistic democracy that I believe is right. When I discuss this in public forums, I try to ensure that I am clear on what is my opinion, and what is based on my research. 

Now, why am I describing this? Because, a while back I read this piece in The Conversation: Nationalising Britain’s Railways is the Only Way to Fix Chronic Problems. I’m a bit train nerd, so much so that I know a lot of the way British Rail was run was bloody awful – I’d love to do a PhD on The Modernisation Plan of 1955 which lumbered the network with brand new infrastructure designed for the 1930s and a range of new diesel locomotives of variable quality. So I clicked on the link thinking I’d get a thoughtful piece on the pros and cons of private ownership versus state ownership. What I actually read was pretty poor editorialising with factual inaccuracies. The third paragraph I thought was particularly awful. It reels off a list of the ways the private railways companies are worse than British Rail, with an impressive set of links to back it up. I bothered to click on the links. What they actually point to is a load of analysis and statistics that start in 1995, when the railways were privatised, and then show how on these indicators performance has deteriorated. None of them compare their performance to that of British Rail. The entire paragraph was making a false statement. One example of this inaccuracy – a book I got last Christmas on British Rail design had a load of old train tickets printed on the inside. Quite a few of these were “regulated fares” – season tickets and peak-time returns. I popped a few of the post-decimal prices into an RPI inflator to find out what the price would be today. When I then checked the same ticket today, the price was virtually the same.

This is just one example of the sort of editorial writing that The Conversation seems to increasingly publish, where respect for the truth is subsumed to the ideological opinion of the author. Quite a few of the replies to my tweet had similar experiences.

To get all Habermasian on you – Habermas argues we assess truth claims on three bases: their accuracy; whether we trust the speaker; and whether they fit into existing norms. Academia is, arguably, the domain of third criteria, where we debate the existing norms and paradigms of knowledge. But in wider society, the second criteria is where we, as academics are privileged and we should be much more reflexive of that, and be absolutely clear when what we are describing is based on a disputed norm. In this case, there is a broad range of scholarship on privatisation. Some of this is very right wing and says all state intervention is distorting markets; some is very left wing and asserts that capitalism as a system of ownership is wrong. There is also a chunk of empirical work in the middle that uses a range of indicators and outcomes to make judgements as to whether specific cases of privatisation were good or bad. I would expect something like The Conversation to reflect this diversity and complexity in the scholarship in its published material. If you want this sort of academic reflection on railway privatisation, I personally thought this was a better much better piece.

The crisis in journalism

My other issue with The Conversation is I think it’s a problematic intervention in a market – that for news journalism – that is in dire straits. The fact that newspapers like The Daily Hate Mail and The Scum are now seeing falling sales, falling revenues and falling profits really shows what a state the market is in. You might hate their content, but for decades these two newspapers were journalistic powerhouses, selling thousands of copies and earning millions through advertising revenue. One only has to look at MailOnline – BuzzFeed before BuzzFeed existing – and see how different it is to its paper version to understand the way things are going.

With falling revenues, and readership driven through clickbait headlines to get someone to hover on your website long enough to kick-in an advertising fee, news is in crisis. News organisations can no longer afford to pay a lot of staff to cover the sort of things that an academic might input into – social and policy commentary for example; or science stories.

You might argue that The Conversation is therefore filling a gap that needs filled – it’s allowing academics to input into news debates with “facts”. But I don’t think it does do that because it falls into the same editorial traps of clickbait and sensationalism that mainstream news organisations use which distorts the news. And, as discussed, problematically they do this with authors who are trusted in society.

In an industry that is now driven by journalists maintaining their jobs through getting clicks, I would actually suggest that by providing free content, The Conversation is putting journalists out of work and is actually distorting the market. It is making the crisis in news journalism worse. Because of its reliance on income from partner institutions that are higher education bodies, The Conversation is state-funded news. Directly, it gets its funding from organisations that are funded directly (through grants) and indirectly (through student loans) by the government. It is also funded indirectly by the government as its writers (us academics) write for free for it and have our overheads covered by our state-funded organisations. Because of this, I believe it should be far more closely scrutinised than it is. When The Conversation gets things wrong, it should be more of a scandal than when the BBC gets things wrong. And, I’m sorry, but in a lot of the material it publishes, I do not see The Conversation meeting a high bar of accuracy and impartiality that we should expect.

The real risk for this is that, in the context we live in of “fake news”, distortions of the truth, and news organisations financially unable to do their job, that The Conversation could make discourse in society worse, not better. If it continues to publish editorialising statements by non-reflexive academics, then the public have every right to not “trust the experts”. 

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Ursula K LeGuin

I woke up this morning to the incredibly sad news that the science fiction writer Ursula K LeGuin has died. I thought I’d like to do a blog post about how important she was for me, but didn’t know if I’d have time. However, a storm has wreaked havoc on central Scotland’s railways, so I’m using the lengthy delay I’m experiencing to pen some thoughts.

I wasn’t much of a sci-fi reader under I started reading LeGuin’s work. Not long after I first met my husband, he made me watch a very good BBC2 documentary about her work. He reads loads of sci-fi and fantasy, or varying quality, and is also a massive fan of LeGuin’s work. This spent some time discussing The Left Hand of Darkness. I was fascinated by the themes it picked up and my husband encouraged me to read it. Not being a regular reader of sci-fi at that point I did find it hard work – the funny names that my brain couldn’t work out how to pronounce to itself; the descriptions of alien worlds. I’ve since realised, if you’re not regular sci-fi reader that this is a barrier you have to overcome (I’ve currently a third of the way through Iain M. Banks’ Excession and am just about understanding it now). Once I’d finished it, I knew it was a good book, but I wasn’t overawed by it.

A little while later, it was during the write-up of my PhD thesis, I then read The Dispossessed. This story of lives in anarcho-syndicalism and rampant capitalism really resonated with me. In my thesis I was grappling with how to write about regeneration policy that was more than just going “oooh, it’s bad and neo-liberal” and also write in an ethnographic way. It was in The Dispossessed that LeGuin’s background in anthropology (her parents were anthropologists) really shone through for me. She deftly used the otherness created by the genre of sci-fi to bring into sharp relief the problems, and benefits, of both the capitalist planet and its revolutionary anarcho-syndicalist moon. This helped me grapple with the fact my policy ethnography had to reveal the difficult ethical and moral decisions all actors in a policy process were making and try and draw out a compromise of “what’s the best thing to do in the situation we find ourselves in” – driving be towards Habermas’ pragmatics that still frame a lot of my thinking in policy studies.

I then delved into The Lathe of Heaven just as I was finishing up my thesis. This was brilliant for me then – this is what my policy-makers were trying to do! The utopianism of both social democratic policy and managerialism was trying to create a perfect world from their dreams without thinking of the consequences. The best bit for me was when the scientist got rid of races to get rid of racism and the world then became incredibly dull. For me, at this time, this really spoke to policies that were trying to normalise all neighbourhoods rather than accepting difference between deprived and affluent neighbourhoods and working within that frame. It also helped me further get to grips with what good ethnography (particularly policy ethnography) is trying to do – to reveal the absurdities in the taken-for-granted, such as the way in which people act within a “partnership” meeting, compared to the differing ways in which partnership was understood by the people round the table, a point I elaborate in this paper.

Over the years I worked my way through virtually all her books, including the dodgy fourth book in the Earthsea trilogy. She is one of the few authors I have re-read. I read both The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed within the last eighteen months. Funnily enough, my views from my previous readings were reversed – I found the dichotomy in The Dispossessed quite clunky, and the exploration of gender and binary divisions in The Left Hand of Darkness (plus the drama of the escape) utterly enthralling. I think this was because I am now much more attuned to issues of gender. Re-reading them also reminded me of my dream from when I first started reading her books – to run a postgraduate module on The Policy Analysis of Ursula K LeGuin.

I also think LeGuin, along with J.G Ballard (read Vermillion Sands), was one of the best short-story writers I’d read. Her wonderful short collection Changing Planes is extremely witty, and whenever I find myself spending a little too much time in an airport departure lounge I think of its central conceit with a wry smile, and a wish that I could change planes!

So, I am very upset that LeGuin has died – as a friend commented, 88 seems very young these days. But I am so glad her writing could be part of my life. Her work opened up the world of sci-fi to me, revealing what the best sci-fi, the best ethnography, and the best policy analysis do – make you look at the world askance.

Friday, 5 January 2018

This blog post is not about Toby Young

Academic twitter in the UK got very angry on New Years Day. The Guardian broke the story, just after midnight, that Toby Young had been appointed to the Board of the new Office for Students, the HE regulator in England. People were very angry indeed, and quite rightly so, and a lot of digital ink has been spilled. My main thought was that the graun had rather landed on a good way of driving traffic to their website on a dull Bank Holiday Monday.

This might seem a bit of a snarky thought – TY’s appointment is a bad decision – but it does also reflect that, outside of academia, I can’t imagine anyone really gives a shit who has been appointed to the Board of the OfS. Or even that the OfS has replaced the regulatory role of HEFCE and the Privy Council.

I landed on this thought after repeated conversations I had over the Christmas break with non-academic family and friends which started with “so when are you back at work?” and occasionally the blunt “so when are the students back?”. In answer to the first, it was “the 3rd January, and semester starts on the 15th"; the answer to the second was the reverse of that. Having been a lecturer seven years now, I’m getting used to patiently answering this question.

In polite conversation I sometimes almost hate being asked what I do – I usually just say I work at the University of Stirling. I think because of the middle-class circles I am in, this then leads onto this conversation:
“What do you do?”
“I’m a Senior Lecturer in Social Policy.”
“What’s social policy?”
“That’s a good question, don’t ask me!”
“What do you teach?”
(precis of syllabus of second year module, while hoping the conversation ends) etc.

Sometimes the conversation will drift onto my research. Then I’m torn between pinning the poor soul in the corner while I run through my elevator pitch for my next project, or just summarising it as “I’m interested in why we have poor neighbourhoods and rich neighbourhoods”. I can easily end up having to summarise how research funding in the UK works.

I can see why academics socialise with other academics, as it shortcuts a lot of this.

My mum was a social worker, and so she used to dread conversations about her work for similar reasons. For a while she worked in Bradford Council’s office in Manningham. If someone asked her where she worked she would just reply “Lumb Lane”. It was then the location of the red light district, so that would shut down this conversation completely.

The variation on this conversation I find most interesting, and tread warily around, is when people who are quite professional clearly have absolutely no idea what being an academic entails. You don’t want to patronise, but then you don’t want to end up intellectualising either.

Particularly over the summer, academic public reaction to the common comment “oh, are you off for the summer then” is rage. I used to be like that. Now I just politely explain that I take annual leave like anyone else and say where I’m planning on going on holiday.

To get to the point. I think there is quite a lot of snobbery in this response that we need to be aware of, and I will get this blog post back to TY, I promise. Even in these days of mass participation in higher education, the majority of people in the UK have absolutely no experience of higher education except for the fact it’s a big building in their city or town. Not many people will actually no any academics, and even if you have had experience of HE as an undergraduate or even postgraduate taught student, the chances are you will have no idea what academics actually do.

So, when you have no idea about something, what do you do – you reach for something you do know about: your education to-date. Which has been at schools. And school teachers do have most of the school holidays as their holidays. It’s not that big a leap of logic to presume that your teachers when you are an adult live fairly similar lives to your teachers when you were a kid. In fact to presume otherwise would be the greater leap of logic.

I told you I’d get this back to TY.

And, I think this is what we’re quite bad at remembering when things like the TY appointment happen. Yes, it is bad, but it’s particularly bad for us as academics. For most people in the UK, it is completely inconsequential. Higher Education is inconsequential for most people in the UK. This is why Michael Gove can get away with dismissing the “experts”. This is partly one of the reasons, I would suggest, that we seem to be losing the battle for our relevance against some pretty ferocious attacks. My concern has always been that focusing on specific issues like tuition fees, or the appointment of TY, we miss the bigger picture of “reducing barriers to entry to new actors in the market”, and reducing the barriers to exit, that are a key part of these reforms.

So, if you’re an academic reading this, next time someone asks you if you’re off for the summer, can I suggest that you smile and politely explain that you’ll be off on leave and recall that the person asking does not know. Can we ensure that what we do is comprehensible to a wider audience so that we don’t have to rely on liberal, middle-class Guardian-readers as our allies? For me, this is what the radical proposition of coproducing our universities should be about. Being universities in new contexts with diverse communities.