Category Archives: Academia

Academia: It’s a mug’s game

This is an unusual post for me. It has no images. It has no jokes. It’s just a cathartic rant I need to get out.

On the 24th of February 2015, I had the successful viva of my PhD thesis. It was not a particularly joyous occasion. I had a good idea what was going to happen. Nothing. And indeed, three years later, here I am, not having held a single academic job, and severely depressed by my prospects.

I in part blame the way I was treated by my university, who gave me no teaching opportunities during the course of my PhD. I signed up to everything I could, volunteered for all sorts of positions (just Google me, I’m everywhere), supported other PhD students, and went to a plethora of lectures and research seminars. I strove to make my government-funded research relevant and accessible to the public: starting this blog, for instance, and experimenting with different kinds of outreach and engagement.  But when I came to apply to be a teaching assistant, I was turned down. I was pretty angry as it mean I wouldn’t be able to apply for any academic jobs when I finished my thesis on time. I spent the next two academic years hanging around my university, getting what teaching assistant positions I could alongside admin and website work, including teaching a pre-set BA1 topic course, and organising a conference, that I really should have been able to do during my PhD.

So now, here I am, in the midst of a third academic year since my completion, with the basic experience I should have had in hand three years ago. But fellowships begat fellowships. People move from institution to institution. Once you’ve fallen out of the system, it’s very hard to get back in. You lose access to libraries, your username and password to online journals, you lose your email address, you lose a community. You become a try-hard pariah.

I worked on what I did because I thought it was important. I see the English parish church as this massive untapped body objects of knowledge, that unfortunately is side-lined as a picturesque curiosity for handful of retiree enthusiasts to visit. But universities are becoming nothing more than neo-liberal degree factories.  They don’t want hard research first. They don’t primarily need exciting new ideas. First and foremost they want good lecturers who the consumer students will immediately take to. The higher the customer satisfaction, the more they will be able to charge. Simple as that.

The sheer amount of nepotism I’ve seen in academia is quite disheartening. I’ve seen job searches take place when the ideal candidate they want is all set up in advance. I get quite a lot of interviews, but I often feel that the whole position is a done deal, and I’m just a patsy. I don’t even get my travel expenses to get there and back. I carry on with some honorary positions at charitable organisations I care about (that means unpaid), a few sources of unreliable freelance work, but I’m losing the will to actively research my long-planned post-doctoral project on parish church chancels, or keep up with academic literature. There’s only so long you can go on without validation.

The idea of a humanities PhD having at its core a single significant research topic is looking highly flawed. The American PhD takes around five to eight years, and is a lot more rigorous. The British PhD looks like the musings of an amateurish gentleman scholar by comparison. The best plan in this country is to apply for jobs during your PhD – something I was actively discouraged from doing because the university doesn’t want to suffer the black mark of a funded non-finish – and then just work on the thesis at weekends and hand it in at some distant date when it’s eventually ready. As universities become ever more like corporations, fighting profit margins and paying their CEOs (vice-chancellors) hundreds of thousands, what place is there for someone who just wants to rescue English medieval architectural history from literal ruin? Seemingly not much.

If the governmental regulation and reform of the higher education sector continues the way it does, and universities end up in the sorry state of so many of our schools, then after Brexit, our university system is going to be a joke. A joke I don’t think is funny anymore.

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Could Anyone Not On the Bus Please Raise Their Hand: A Guide To Conference Fieldtrips

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It’s that time of year when academics can grab a break from their endless PowerPoint slides, passive-aggressive question sessions and lunch breaks with suspicious fish-based sandwiches, and instead be permitted into the real world to point at things in a somewhat organised manner. Like a school trip, bus loads of academics are driven from the lecture hall to archaeological sites, great buildings and art galleries, with a burning determination to show everyone around them that they absolutely ooze theory, methodology and object-based knowledge from every gland! Things can get pretty heated as they tear into poor display, conservation and interpretation; so here’s a few situations I have identified that you can be ready for!

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P2000537Everyone will look at an interesting piece of medieval sculpture for a bit, then someone will realise it is a Victorian replica and the group will die a little inside

Well… it’s a very good pastiche


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Seizing the opportunity, one eminent delegate will speak inside a building to the extent that they basically recite the entire manuscript for the book about it that they have never got round to writing

He’s been going for at least 35 minutes now, isn’t the wine reception supposed to be at six??

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P2060052Instead of looking at a building, people will gather round a small model of it made by secondary-school children in the 1950s  and criticise its numerous inaccuracies

Of course, the layout of the monastic complex is conjectural to say the least; and that tracery of the infirmary is ludicrous for the documented date

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KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAIf a number of scholars are invited to climb part of a stair-turret, they will ignore instructions where to exit it and proceed to ascend to the very top as if they might glimpse the court of heaven with God enthroned with His angels in splendour, when actually all they will find is a roof-space filled with asbestos

Now this just doesn’t seem safe, maybe I ought to go back down and not mention this

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P2020195One conference delegate will criticise the liturgical arrangement of a church building but absolutely no one else will care

Look at the state of those riddel-posts
They look like drainpipes


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P1560077There will be a significant digression about the appropriateness of light fittings

All 1960s, of course


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P1240071Two insane people will look at something utterly insignificant as if it is the most exciting thing in all of creation

Is that..?

I think it is…!

A PLINTHERFACE


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13625143_10100333691940530_1400530738_nEven though every group is supposed to see the same things in a rota, people will hide the coloured sticker on their name badge and go with whatever group they feel like because they really don’t believe this is possible

Balls to that Anglo-Saxon tun, I’m going to the lady chapel roofspace first


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P1770506Someone will be told by a guard not to get too close to an object when pointing at it and have their authoritative ego scarred for the rest of the visit

I wasn’t even that close… and it’s glazed anyway so I don’t know what their problem was frankly

 


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P1630331An amateur guardian of a building will deliver an extended Ladybird book version of its history to an assembled congregation of eminent scholars who know more about it than anyone else on the planet, but everyone will be too polite to tell them to stop

And we have three windows at the east end, which symbolise the 3 at the beginning of our village dialling code

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KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAIt will rain and people will make interminable jokes about the “English summer”

Even if the conference is abroad

Typical!

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13816950014_3797aa884f_b[1]You will be stuck between two people discussing the differences between Purbeck marble and other types of fossiliferous limestone which is interesting for the first ten minutes but then you realise decorum means you have no escape

In the en-delit shafting in the triforium? That’s blue lilas, surely

 

 


STAINED GLASS ATTITUDES WILL RETURN

With more wonky arches

soon

All that is solid melts into wifi: note-taking in the digital age

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BA and MA notes

As I’m doing a little bit of teaching on art-historical methodological texts next term, I’ve been digging right back into my BA notes. Partly this is to remind myself why I hate Said’s Orientalism so much, but also to think about how you think and note-take as a student. What’s evident mainly how much the way note-taking has changed in the giant leaps we’ve made in technology in the past ten years, perhaps fundamentally changing the way we engage with texts. Is this a good thing? Well, it’s a thing, for sure. A thing that might be even more boring than moulding profiles, but I’m still going to put both on my blog.

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An example of BA3 note-taking

The notes for my BA at the University of Manchester and my MA at The Courtauld Institute fill three whole lever-arch binders (the majority of which are for my third-year BA, not including the dissertation). Ten years ago, if you brought a laptop to a lecture, you’d stick out like you’d brought your own sandwiches to a lunch meeting at a mediocre café. Everyone would look down on you for it, even if deep down they thought it was a rather good idea. But nevertheless, I was never the one to make this faux-pas, resulting in reams of A4 paper with fountain-pen notes. I developed a system of organising notes – for both set texts and lectures – into sections, using bullet points or indenting as the argument deepened, and returning to the margin when a new idea was introduced.

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Some PhD note taking

I attempted to continue my developed system of tiered note-taking (the “classic” type, I have thus dubbed it) into my PhD. The problem is that, whereas in taught, structured classes with assigned reading, it’s easy to organise all this thought on to paper, it’s much harder in the flowing, free-form nature of your own thesis. Despite my determination to hold on to my fountain pen, it was never going to work. I found myself sometimes turning through page after page of my folder trying to find the reference for something I’d written down when writing part of a chapter. My little red ring-bind folder was abandoned before it even approached the size of my BA notes, for the referencing system Zotero, which can hold all your bibliography and notes thereon in the Cloud. As long as you hadn’t imagined making it, no note is ever far from your grasp.

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Lecture notes

Writing however, continued to be useful to help understand things rather than simply to record: most of all lectures. My golden age of the “classic type” of note-taking survived into the extensive notes I take during academic talks, not necessarily to remember what they said, but to have some sort of exercise in front of me to understand the facets of their argument. For much of the three years of my PhD, these were done in notebooks. Increasingly, my scrawl became ever-more spidery, and if anyone was to research my archive if I suddenly die in a bizarre gardening accident (the latter far more likely than the former) they’ll need to train themselves in palaeography at a level usually reserved for Babylonian cuneiform. Marginal doodles of Gothic tracery reached their apex during the middle of year three, suggesting I may have being having some sort of episode by then.

OneNote

Microsoft OneNote (not as many spelling errors visible as there usually are)

For the past year, I’ve been note-taking in lecture rooms with Microsoft OneNote on my ASUS Transformer laptop-cum-tablet, as now it’s socially acceptable to have a “device” with you. Of course, the tab key is the ideal way of maintaining the “classic type”, preserving a system that was developed on the page in the screen. The great thing about this is now I don’t have to keep these notes anywhere, I can make them and forget about them, and never have to destroy them – even if most of them I will never read again. Possibly the only downside of all my notes being perfectly legible is if at a conference anyone gives a paper so bad I stop taking notes and type something rude about it, if they sit next to me later on they might read it.

Of course, rather undermining the whole analogue-to-digital conceit of this post, my essays have always been done digitally. I cannot imagine writing long-form prose without being able to pre-emptively launch into a draft without an introduction, move bits about, revise and rewrite chunks, slot bits in, and all the other things that personal computer word processing has made widely possible for at least 20 years now. Probably someone reading this will give me the full-on Four-Yorkshiremen treatment of how they had to do their PhD before the big bang, when we didn’t have all this “time”, “space” and “matter” that you kids today take for granted and that’s totally fine but I’m sharing my own inconsequential personal story about taking notes and I’m nearly finished now so just hold off a little bit longer and then you can tell me that I don’t even know that I’ve been born.

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My PhD reading and notes organised into consecutive folders

The weird thing is, I don’t actually remember writing much of my dissertation. Just editing and refining these essays I wrote for my supervisors in the manner of assessed work. Despite the fact emerging pretty early on that trying to structure your PhD in the manner of a taught module was a stupid idea, I stuck with it till the bitter end (although the name of the final folder may reveal my recognition of this). Some of these were directly turned into chapters, others swallowed up into the larger picture.

Making the leap from systematic, linear note-taking to cultivating truly original research is not straightforward, and I’m sure everyone has had their own way of making the shaky transition from student to not-student. But the tools easily available to us now with Cloud-based note taking systems I think truly do help us organise thought and information in a more holistic and adaptable manner. It doesn’t make things any easier than before, but it does mean we can do more. However, on occasion, I still like to pick apart a particularly complicated text with my good old fountain pen.

 

What struck me: a guide to conference questions

Some say the real heroes in our world are those like the police officers who keep us safe, the soldiers who fight for our freedom, or the doctors who keep us in good health. Yes, those guys are great and all, but don’t forget the unsung hero of the academic. As well as having to spend their days wondering how on earth shelfmarks work and curse the fact that you can’t put footnotes to your footnotes; they tirelessly attend conferences where they all gather together to namedrop French philosophers and linguists, their only reward being coffee breaks with often poor-quality biscuits. Of course, the most heated section of any conference are the question and answer sessions, when a paper is open for skewering by an audience of esteemed professors and over-enthusiastic master’s students. To make things easier for these noble paper-giving heroes, here’s a handy guide to what a question’s prefix may indicate as to what’s coming next.

(Because this isn’t the TLS I’ve put some pictures in)



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whatstruckmeOne thing that struck me was…

There was one really interesting thing I saw in your slides and I’d rather we talked about that rather than what you actually said



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haveyoureadHave you read…

You haven’t read…



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grotesques+f.185r[1]This isn’t really a question, more of an observation…

I’m not giving a paper today but I really think I ought to be



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grotesques+f.154r[1]Could you speak a bit more about…

You seem to be getting dangerously close to something I’m working on and I have to see if I need be worried



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grotesques+f.203v[1]You should take a look at…

I actually know what you’re talking about and I’m going to make sure everyone here sees my mastery of the bibliography



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grotesques+f.50r[1]I was thinking during your presentation, about…

I’m going to ramble about nothing in particular for at least eight minutes



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grotesques+f.50r+4[1]I just wondered what you thought about – and the other speakers could also answer this – …

I’ve actually remembered what this conference is supposed to be about and I’ll be damned if I don’t make you people actually address it before the wine reception



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LP-Monster-6-2[1]I’ll think you’ll find that…

THAT WAS SO SO SO WRONG WRONG WRONG


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Okay so basically no one can ever ask a question now without looking like a grotesque from the Luttrell Psalter. Sorry about that, everyone.

The sad fate of St Jacques d’Abbeville and church preservation

This church, in Abbeville, Picardy, Northern France, is no more. St. Jacques’ tall spaciously glazed apse, its rose windowed transepts, its elegantly flying buttressed nave and its grand west facade with proud tower and crocketed spire has, in the last week, been completely demolished. Despite the extraordinary images, this story has not found its way into the English press, the only English language source interested in it was the often admirably contrary Art Tribune. They have an excellent summary of the church in 2010 and the political situation surrounding it, the last straw that came this February when stones fell from the apse and the subsequent death sentence that came afterwards. Abbeville is now the proud owner of a new level car park.

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This was the church towards the end of Tuesday. Photos of all this sort of thing can be seen on this blog  that once served to highlight the plight of the church. I can’t deny looking at it obsessively as it comes down. Part of it is the Hollywood spectacle, the other the road-side-car-crash effect, and it’s also quite fascinating to see the structure revealed, the functional buttressing failing, the vault bays collapsing. But ultimately the malice behind the whole thing,  like the Euston Arch, makes it quite upsetting to look at. And that pathetic sight of the stump of the tower with only indications of the great nave it served as the porch to is really the saddest shot of all.

Okay, it’s not a proper medieval church or anything, you could say. It was built in the 1870s by Victor Deleforterie, a follower of Violett-le-Duc, generally espousing his principles of correct, structural, Neo-Gothic. Indeed, ironically enough, it replaced a medieval church deemed structurally unsound. But its qualities were evident to anyone, and it’s hard to dismiss it as cold or pedantic. It certainly does not deserve the atrocious indignity of being smashed down, post-war stained glass, gargoyles and all, by driving diggers into the side of it in the short span of a week. Ten million euros was the (probably inaccurately high) estimate for its restoration that was the main case for getting rid of it. However obvious it is to make the comment that we’ve just spent ten million pounds parading a coffin two miles on the Tuesday morning when the tower of St. Jacques was pushed over by a crane, it’s inevitable that I make it.

I know we can’t keep everything. Our towns and cities are filled with plenty of churches I wouldn’t be too bothered if they went. In fact, maybe a couple should. I can (just about) see two of these sorts of things out the window of my current student flat. Both are non-conformist (neither Church of England or Roman Catholic) buildings of unremarkable ragstone Dec type, like you see all over London. The best you could say about them is that they look like churches.

02 SwedenborgianPresbyterian church, Camden New Road

They are the Camden Road New Church, built 1873 for the New Swedenborgians, deconsecrated in the ’50s and since the ’70s, along with its rather nice Edwardian Arts and Crafts church hall, occupied by the Islington Arts Factory, and the Presbyterian church on Camden Park Road, 1876-9, which has been professionally subdivided into flats and offices. Subdivision for secular use is really the end of the church interior, and very difficult to undo. The only rationale for doing this sort of conversion is that it preserves the exterior as a picturesque folly. But both of these churches have suffered the ultimate indignity of being emasculated – their spires capped in the ’80s when health and safety decided they were unsafe. The Presbyterian church has suffered the further insult of having mobile phone aerials attached to it. The outside of the former Swedenborgian church is a bit of a mess, west gable graffiti’d, windows boarded up, glass broken, and from the south side, little sign the building is occupied at all. Both now neither have their original aesthetic effect as a proud house of prayer of a denominational congregation or the Romantic allure of the ruin, they are just look like depressing has-beens. Although they have found alternative uses, their retention as pieces of architecure is counter-productive for the local built environment.

But what happened at Abbeville shows a wholly different attitude. While here we pickle unremarkable buildings in a sorry state with a misplaced feeling of duty for our heritage, this town in France has blatantly ignored a building to the point where they can claim it is structurally unsafe and knock it down. This could never happen here, right?

03 Rossyln Hill ext

Well, it almost happened with the absolutely magnificent church of St Stephen, Rossyln Hill. If you’ve ever taken a walk along the lower fields of Hampstead Heath, you will have seen this quite remarkable elephantine structure swelling up from the west. It was built 1869-73 by S. S. Teulon, one of those so-called “loveable rogues” of the Gothic Revival who strove to find new avenues within the grammar of Gothic. The problem with Teulon’s churches is, while always quite exciting, that they fell between two stools. While they are often wonderfully ornate inside, they generally were built for congregations of rather low churchmanship. Their planning and design were just the sort of thing that had church-reviewers for the magazine The Ecclesiologist leaving the building with a bunch of angry notes, shaking their heads at how much he’d got wrong. While no doubt the original congregations adored their beautiful buildings in which they could gather for distinctly non-Catholic worship, later generations found the high-Victorian excess intolerable, unlike High Church ritualists. The other problem is that Pevsner was not an admirer of Teulon or indeed many of the Rogueish Goths. While Pevsner’s acerbic little asides are always entertaining, I don’t think he would have appreciated them being used as the main case for getting rid of buildings. St Stephen’s was declared redundant in 1977. The church was boarded up, and in this time it was occupied by squatters, who filled it knee deep with rubbish and the sculptures in the chancel literally defaced in a bizarre revival of iconoclasm. The nave windows were seemingly systematically and covertly stolen from underneath the boards, the rest vandalised. Being grade I listed, demolition was out of the question. It was left to rot. It was not until 2002 that this unloved building was handed over to an independent group, deconsecrated, and restored for secular use. Although all the furnishings have gone, the restoration allows us once again to experience this inspiring space.

Interior of St Stephen's Rossyln Hill

The St Stephen’s Trust (who hold regular open days on alternate Sunday afternoons) have done quite remarkable things, even having missing panels of the Clayton and Bell east windows replaced with replicas of the finest quality to the original designs. But their efforts should not have been necessary. The biggest crime was the neglecting of the building in the first place. It’s a strange thing that there is a certain moral dimension to vandalism. It is only if a building looks unused that some people generally are inclined throw bricks through the windows. It was by ignoring the building that London Diocese nearly condemned it to the fate of St. Jacques.

Willful neglect is a weapon that can defeat listing, and it did not save Christ Church, Sumner Road in Croydon, another Teulon church. It was a fairly early work of 1852 by the architect, certainly not the masterpiece at Hampstead but still had interesting signs of his trademark style. No doubt the twentieth-century disgust of Victoriana was the same here, the building was declared unsafe and closed in 1979. Just as demolition was ordered, the building was listed in 1983, making its fate uncertain. It hung around until 1985 when it caught fire and the whole east end of the church destroyed. Rather suspicious, isn’t it? Regardless, in 1991 the church had a new east end built, and the old west end retained. Of course, I didn’t know all this, as I approached it the other Sunday with my 1983 London: South Pevsner in hand, so the utilitarian brick east end,  was a bit of a surprise. I’m not adverse to modern churches, but the roof in particular here  is rather claustrophobia-inducing in its oppressiveness.

05 Christ church sumner road05 Christ church sumner road int

When I had worked out what had went on, “When did you have your fire?” I resigningly enquired to the lady handing out books for the service, who was only too pleased for me to have a look inside. “Oh… that was before my time”, she said. “Oh, umm, well, sorry about your church” was the most I could muster. There’s no way of putting it except that she frankly did not care in the slightest.

There was no malice in the disregard the Christ Church Croydon worshippers had towards the building they no longer had. But sadly it is this indifference to beauty and heritage that ultimately leads to destruction.  An ignorance towards the great efforts of the past to build up places that aspired to beauty in making a space for communal worship is certainly one of the factors that led to the otherwise unbelievable situation of the barbaric demolition at Abbeville in the past week.